Democratic lawmakers took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to warn that the Trump administration's plan to dismantle US net neutrality rules imperils free speech at a time when an open platform for political dissent is needed more than ever.
The outpouring of opposition from Senate Democrats came one day before President Trump's Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai is expected to formally begin the process of killing the Obama-era rules on Thursday, despite broad public support for the principle that all internet content should be treated equally.
Net neutrality is the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Verizon shouldn't be allowed to prioritize or block legal content on their networks. It also means that they can't set up online fast lanes for deep-pocketed companies at the expense of startups. This open access principle is responsible for establishing the internet as an unprecedented platform for economic growth, civic engagement and free speech, according to net neutrality advocates.
During a series of Senate floor speeches, Democratic lawmakers repeatedly emphasized the importance of net neutrality for free speech online. And they made clear that the internet's role in facilitating unfettered public dialogue is especially crucial now, given Trump's hostile attitude toward the First Amendment, including his characterization of news organizations as "the enemy of the American people."
"Net neutrality has never been more important," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat. "Allowing broadband providers to block or discriminate against certain content providers is a danger to free speech and freedom of our press. These principles are fundamental to our democracy. We should safeguard them by stopping this proposed repeal of the internet order."
Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, echoed that sentiment. "I have always called net neutrality the free speech issue of our time, because it embraces our most basic constitutional freedoms," he said. "Unrestricted public debate is vital to the functioning of our democracy. Now, perhaps more than ever, the need to preserve a free and open internet is abundantly clear."
Sen. Maggie Hassan, the New Hampshire Democrat, pointed out the net neutrality is especially important to ensure that the internet is a "platform for traditionally underrepresented voices including women and minorities to be heard, which adds to our economic strength. An open internet serves as a platform to elevate voices that are underrepresented or marginalized in traditional media—an experience many women in the field know all too well."
The nation's largest broadband companies hate the FCC's net neutrality policy because it subjects them to strict "common carrier" regulations that were originally intended to ensure that phone companies can't pick and choose what calls—and callers—to connect. These corporate giants have spent millions of dollars in recent years to attack the policy in federal court, Congress and at the FCC.
FCC Chairman Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, appears more than willing to do the bidding of the broadband industry. Last month, he announced a plan to dismantle the agency's net neutrality rules, effectively gutting the agency's ability to enforce strong open internet safeguards, and opening the door for ISPs to favor their own content or create paid online fast lanes in order to boost their profits.
Because Pai effectively controls the FCC, there's virtually nothing that Democratic lawmakers can do to thwart Pai's agenda, other than try to mobilize grassroots opposition "in every corner of the country," which they pledged to do in an open letter "to everyone who uses the internet" published Wednesday on TechCrunch.
Open internet advocates accuse Pai of putting the interests of the broadband industry ahead of the interests of the American people. "The Federal Communications Commission is not trying to help consumers by rolling back net neutrality protections," said Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat. "They are doing it to make it easier for the big cable companies to be in a position to shove out true and real competition."
Pai's crusade against the FCC's net neutrality rules is consistent with the broader campaign by the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers to roll back pro-consumer regulations across broad swaths of the US economy, according to Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat.
"This effort on net neutrality is just one piece of the Republicans' effort to dismantle the basic protections safeguarding American families," Markey said on the Senate floor. "Instead of protecting our privacy, our health care, our environment, or our net neutrality, the Republicans want to give it all away to their friends and allies in big corporations."
Pai's proposal will almost certainly be approved at Thursday's FCC May open meeting, launching several months of public comment and agency deliberation before a final decision.