One year after federal regulators approved the most sweeping open internet protections in US history, Republicans are escalating their assault on net neutrality, the principle that all content on the internet should be equally accessible.
Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are co-sponsoring a new Senate bill that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing its open internet protections, dealing a potentially fatal blow to rules designed to preserve the internet's open and freewheeling nature.
Cruz and Rubio's support for the bill injects a once-obscure tech policy issue into the middle of the presidential race at a time when candidates from both parties are engaged in a fierce debate about the federal government's role in regulating corporate America.
The "Restoring Internet Freedom Act" would do no such thing, according to public interest groups and open internet advocates. On the contrary, the bill, which was introduced on Thursday by Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican, would eviscerate the FCC's ability to enforce open internet protections.
The legislation states that the FCC's order protecting net neutrality "shall have no force or effect, and the Commission may not reissue such rule in substantially the same form or issue a new rule that is substantially the same as such rule, unless the reissued or new rule is specifically authorized by a law."
Lee's bill, which was co-sponsored by Cruz and Rubio, is just the latest manifestation of a long-running Republican crusade to undermine the power of federal regulators to police corporate America—a crusade that is evident across industries, from the oil and gas sector to Wall Street to the telecommunications industry.
"We expect this bill to meet a fate similar to that of other failed congressional efforts to undermine the open Internet," said Craig Aaron, President and CEO of DC-based advocacy group Free Press Action Fund. "But people everywhere who love the free and open Internet—and vote—should be very concerned that candidates making their case for running the country are so out of step with the public on this crucial issue."
Cruz, the Texas Republican, has been a particularly vocal opponent of the FCC's policy, which prohibits cable and phone companies from favoring their own services or discriminating against rivals. Open internet advocates, including President Obama, say that without net neutrality, the next Netflix or Skype could be snuffed out because broadband providers like Comcast or Verizon could block such services on their networks.
In 2014, Cruz famously branded net neutrality as "Obamacare for the internet," a bizarre statement for which he was rebuked by many of his own supporters. Just last month, Cruz declared that the FCC's open internet protections, which he described as "lunacy," would "end immediately" if he is elected president.
"So-called net neutrality leads to fewer choices, fewer opportunities, and higher prices for consumers," Cruz said in a statement after the introduction of Lee's anti-net neutrality bill. (Open internet advocates say that assertion has absolutely no basis in fact.)
Last year, Rubio, the Florida Republican, issued a dire-sounding warning about "the message [the FCC's policy] sends to other governments" like China and Russia that aim to control the internet to stifle dissent and crack down on free speech. Rubio's statement was particularly perplexing because the FCC's net neutrality policy is actually a bulwark against attempts to limit free speech online.
Open internet advocates say that much of the Republican opposition to net neutrality stems from an ideological aversion to government regulation that fits squarely into the anti-Washington, anti-Obama belief system that animates much of the Republican party and the so-called "conservative movement."
Even before the FCC passed its net neutrality order last February, Republican lawmakers threatened to kill the policy, and for the last year, their efforts have been unrelenting. Earlier this month, a key GOP-controlled House subcommittee approved a bill that open internet advocates say amounts to a "Trojan Horse" designed to kneecap the FCC's authority to enforce net neutrality protections.
It should come as no surprise that many of the GOP lawmakers who oppose net neutrality are the recipients of mountains of campaign cash from the broadband industry, which detests the FCC policy and is challenging it before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. A ruling in the case is expected soon.
On the Democratic side, net neutrality enjoys broad support among the leading presidential candidates. As far back as 2007, Hillary Rodham Clinton backed legislation in the Senate to ensure internet openness. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, has also been a longtime supporter of net neutrality, and last fall, he joined other pro-net neutrality lawmakers in filing an amicus brief in support of the FCC's policy.