Congressional Democrats launched a campaign to restore net neutrality on Tuesday, warning their Republicans colleagues to get on board or be punished by voters in the midterm elections.
Senate Democrats only need one more Republican vote to pass a resolution to restore net neutrality, setting the stage for a partisan showdown, thanks to the efforts of digital rights groups that have organized mass online mobilizations over the past five years.
The Republican-led Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed its own net neutrality rules for internet service providers like AT&T and Comcast in December. The change was published in the Federal Register on February 22. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers have 60 working days in Congress from that date to pass a resolution reversing the repeal, and thereby reinstate the rules.
Internet service providers have pledged to respect net neutrality without the FCC's oversight, but polls have consistently shown that most voters do not trust them.
The Congressional Review Act only requires a simple majority vote to undo actions made by federal regulatory agencies. As of Tuesday, 49 Senate Democrats and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) support the resolution to restore net neutrality, leaving the Democrats to find one more GOP defector willing to buck the Trump administration and send the measure to the House.
The FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules are designed to keep powerful cable and broadband companies that sell internet service from playing favorites with online content and extorting extra fees from web companies and consumers by slowing, blocking or prioritizing access to certain apps and websites.
Net neutrality proponents have long warned that, without protection from the FCC, consumers could eventually see slower internet service and higher fees for using popular websites. Civil rights activists say lower-income consumers and people of color could be particularly impacted.
"Most Americans have little to no choice in broadband provider, and so we need a consumer protection agency working on these issues," said Chris Lewis, vice president of the digital rights group Public Knowledge, in a statement.
Flanked by a coalition of digital and civil rights activists at a Capitol Hill press conference on Tuesday, more than a dozen Democrats from the House and Senate lined up to speak on behalf of net neutrality. They challenged Republicans to side with consumers instead of powerful internet service providers.
Most internet users simply want to know that elected leaders are on their side, rather than the side of the big companies that send them bills every month.
"When we take this vote on the Senate floor, every one of my colleagues will have to answer this question: Whose side are you on?" said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who introduced the resolution to undo the repeal. "Do you stand with hardworking American families for whom the internet is essential, or do you stand with the big money, the corporate interests and their army of lobbyists?"
Internet service providers have pledged to respect net neutrality without the FCC's oversight, but polls have consistently shown that most voters do not trust them. Republican pollsters recently found that 75 percent of voters support the net neutrality rules when they understand what they are, including 75 percent of Trump supporters. The fact that cable and broadband companies have strikingly low rates of customer satisfaction may explain why support for regulating them easily crosses party lines.
However, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee and longtime opponent of using the FCC to enforce net neutrality, argues that the rules are stifling innovation and investment in broadband infrastructure. He has aggressively pushed President Trump's deregulatory agenda at the FCC, repealing the net neutrality rules along with a long list of Obama-era consumer protections that industry groups say are bad for business.
Pai may have earned some applause from conservatives who are ideologically opposed to federal regulations in general, but a close look at the polling suggests that, for most internet users, the politics of communications policy remain opaque. They simply want to know that elected leaders are on their side, rather than the side of the big companies that send them bills every month and spend millions of dollars every year to influence lawmakers.
Democrats appear poised to use the privacy issue along with net neutrality as campaign season ammunition.
"Democrats will make [net neutrality] a major issue in the 2018 elections, and we will win," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer during Tuesday's press conference.
The resolution to restore net neutrality still faces an uphill battle in the House, where Republicans enjoy a comfortable majority. However, Democrats will have help from digital activist groups such as Fight for the Future that have mobilized masses of internet users to sway Congress in the past.
At the press conference, Fight for the Future Campaign Director Evan Greer warned lawmakers not to listen to corporate lobbyists who say they can avoid voting for net neutrality by supporting milquetoast legislative replacements offered by Republicans.
"I'll tell you right now, those lobbyists are not the people who will vote for you," Greer said in a warning to Republicans. "Those lobbyists are not the people who have access to your constituents."
It seems Pai and Trump -- along with telecom lobbyists -- have put Republican members of Congress in an awkward position. Last year, Republicans repealed the FCC consumer privacy protections at the behest of internet service providers, an unpopular move that went largely unnoticed during the first chaotic months of the Trump administration. Democrats appear poised to use the privacy issue along with net neutrality as campaign season ammunition, especially if Congress can't save net neutrality before the 60-day deadline.