The internet is quite popular these days, but companies such as AT&T and Comcast that provide internet service are not. That's one reason why Democrats are betting that voters will punish Republicans in the next election for scrapping rules designed to stop internet providers from harvesting personal information without permission and manipulating how easily users can access certain parts of the web.
The threat of voter disapproval was not enough to thwart the legislation repealing online privacy rules that the Republican majority recently rushed through Congress with party-line votes. Democrats hammered their Republican colleagues for selling out their constituents' personal information to big business, a charge that could come back to haunt the GOP now that a looming fight over net neutrality at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promises to keep the broadband lobby in the media spotlight.
"I think there was a great political education that just took place after the privacy vote was cast," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) told reporters on Wednesday.
A few hours later, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to dismantle his commission's authority to enforce net neutrality rules. The rules prevent internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T from blocking or slowing access to web content, or providing priority speeds to web services like Netflix in exchange for special payments. It also bars sweetheart deals with wealthy media conglomerates, ensuring that the corporate media does not dominate the web.
To enforce these rules, the FCC voted in 2015 to classify ISPs as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act, allowing the government to regulate the internet more like a public utility that everyone needs to use. ISPs have been trying to sue and lobby their way out from under the classification ever since.
Net Neutrality on the Chopping Block
Pai, who was once a lawyer for Verizon, consistently promoted the industry's positions on net neutrality and other reforms during the Obama administration. After taking office, Donald Trump rewarded Pai with the top seat on the commission under the FCC's new Republican majority. Like other Republicans in Washington, Pai has quickly moved to slash regulations established under President Obama.
"Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake," Pai said in a speech laying out his plans on Wednesday. "Most importantly, I said that Title II regulation would reduce investment in broadband infrastructure."
As expected, ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon issued statements supporting Pai's proposal, while digital rights and consumer groups are launching a coordinated campaign to oppose him at every turn. Advocates say it's clear whose side the public is on.
Voters tend to support net neutrality, as do a large number of tech startups and web services that don't want to pay extra fees in order to compete. Moreover, people don't like their internet providers. ISPs consistently rank at the bottom of the 43 industries surveyed by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. House Republicans who voted to repeal the privacy rules received an average $138,000 in campaign contributions from ISPs and are probably more eager to defend them against regulation than the average voter.
"When the internet is under attack, we fight back," said Craig Aaron, CEO of the digital rights group Free Press, in a statement. "Pai's move threatens to erase one of the most important victories for the public in the FCC’s history, to defang a needed watchdog, and to leave people everywhere at the mercy of the country’s most-hated phone and cable companies."
Back in 2014, a massive pushback from the media, Silicon Valley and internet users, organized in large part by groups like Free Press, generated an unprecedented 3.7 million comments on net neutrality. The outcry pushed the FCC to adopt strong net neutrality protections under orders from President Obama. The activists who built that movement are preparing for a repeat performance now that net neutrality is on the chopping block under President Trump.
Net Neutrality Redux: The Coming Backlash
On Wednesday, a coalition of digital rights groups announced a campaign to relaunch BattleForTheNet.com, a website that went viral and helped large numbers of people file comments with the FCC in 2014. The groups pledged to send more than 1 million comments to the FCC in the coming weeks. Consumers Union, the policy arm of the group that publishes Consumer Reports, has launched its own online petition.
"Hell hath no fury like the internet scorned," said Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, one of the groups behind BattleForTheNet.com. "We’ll fight tooth and nail to defend net neutrality and keep the web free from censorship."
Democrats in Congress smell blood and are jumping on the bandwagon. On Wednesday, Aaron and Greer joined Sen. Markey and two other Democrats, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen. Ron Wyden, in a press conference announcing the campaign and warning Republicans that gutting protections for consumers online would backfire.
Greer said the message is already getting across, as evidenced by 15 Republicans who broke rank and voted against repealing the privacy rules in the House. The rules, which were established under Title II and had yet to go into effect, would have required ISPs to ask permission before gathering sensitive personal information such as web browsing records from their customers and sharing the data with third parties.
Greer said the ISPs have "poisoned" the debate over online privacy and net neutrality, turning consumer protection into a "partisan issue."
"I think Republicans are misjudging their base on this," Greer said.
Pai wants to exempt ISPs from Title II and send the job of enforcing net neutrality back to the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that does not have the ability to protect consumers like the FCC can, according to net neutrality supporters. This cannot happen overnight. Unlike the privacy rules, which the Republican majority was able repeal quickly under the Congressional Review Act, an obscure legislative tool used to roll back a number of Obama-era regulations, the FCC's rulemaking process could take months.
Pai said the FCC would begin taking public comments when it releases a proposal on May 18, giving Democrats and advocacy groups plenty of time to gather momentum and articulate that the effort is a giveaway to the same powerful broadband companies that send consumers a bill every month. Blumenthal said that even the ISPs themselves should reconsider their support for Pai's plan.
"The bad guys are potentially targets, and they are going to have to think twice about whether they want to fight this fight, because it will be a fight," Blumenthal said.
Net neutrality has long been surrounded by obtuse technical jargon, but the political lines drawn around it are now clear. Republicans and the ISPs argue that "light touch" regulation will foster innovation and investment in infrastructure. Advocates say the ISPs have proven that they can't be trusted to respect net neutrality and the rights of their customers on their own, and a strong government watchdog is needed to protect consumers and the internet itself.
Democrats and digital activists are betting that a large chunk of the public will agree with the latter, and they are ready pounce now that the Trump administration is headed in the opposite direction.