Last month, Democrats introduced a simple three page bill that would do one thing: restore FCC net neutrality rules and the agency’s authority over ISPs, both stripped away by a hugely-controversial decision by the agency in late 2017. Tuesday morning, the Save the Internet Act passed through a key House committee vote and markup session—despite some last-minute efforts by big telecom to weaken the bill.
“Inside the beltway, this is really about maybe five companies,” Representative Anna Eshoo said during the hearing. “Across the country, the American people really get this. National polling shows that Republicans, Democrats, Independents support net neutrality. We’re still in the same old soup pot here. We need to take our lenses off and look across the country.”
Survey after survey have shown that the vast bipartisan majority of Americans supported the FCC’s 2015 rules and opposed the repeal. But the Trump FCC was quick to bow to pressure to telecom giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast—despite their long history of using their role as natural monopolies to hamstring competitors and nickel and dime subscribers. The Pai repeal not only ended net neutrality, it dramatically cut back the FCC’s authority over major broadband providers, shoveling any remaining authority to an FTC critics (like former FCC boss Tom Wheeler) say lacks the authority or resources to actually police telecom giants. With neither competition nor meaningful regulatory oversight to keep them in check, these telecom giants will have carte blanche to abuse their roles as internet gatekeepers online, net neutrality activists have repeatedly warned.
Net neutrality supporters were unsurprisingly quick to applaud the bill’s progress.
“Net neutrality is coming back with a vengeance,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of consumer group Fight for the Future said in a statement. “Politicians are slowly learning that they can’t get away with shilling for big telecom anymore,” Greer said. “We’re harnessing the power of the Internet to save it, and any lawmaker who stands in our way will soon face the wrath of their constituents, who overwhelmingly want lawmakers to restore these basic protections.”
Greer told Motherboard that several last minute amendments were introduced by lawmakers during the markup period in an attempt to water down the bill, but all were pulled in the wake of widespread public interest in the hearing.
“It seems like the GOP retreated a bit given after the huge swell of public support,” said Greer, who told Motherboard that 300,000 people watched the organization’s livestream of the markup process. That attention “really emboldened the Democrats and shored up the ones that were wobbling,” Greer said.
The FCC’s 2015 rules were crafted over a decade of discussion, countless public hearings, and numerous court victories for net neutrality supporters. As such, activists say they viewed any attempt to modify the legislation as a non-starter, given the public clearly wanted a clean restoration of the original rules. Despite net neutrality’s broad, bipartisan approval among consumers, telecom lobbyists have continued to encourage stark partisan divisions in Congress on the issue, something that could make the bill hard to pass. While it should pass in the House, it faces a tougher uphill climb in the Senate, and would also need to avoid a veto by President Trump. Should the legislation fail to pass, the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules may also be restored via a lawsuit filed against the FCC by 22 state attorneys general and companies like Mozilla, who say the Pai FCC ignored all objective data and the public interest its rush to please the nation’s biggest broadband providers.