House and Senate Democrats Wednesday morning introduced a new three-page bill that would restore the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules. Dubbed the Save the Internet Act, the proposal would also restore FCC authority over internet service providers, stripped away in the wake of last year’s controversial repeal.
The original FCC rules prohibited ISPs from unfairly throttling or blocking websites or services they compete with. It also required that ISPs be entirely transparent with consumers about just what kind of broadband connection they’re buying.
“The Save the Internet Act would enact true net neutrality protections by codifying the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order as a new, free-standing section of law,” Congressman Mike Doyle told attendees of a morning press conference (you can view the video here).
“We are on the right side of history, and we will not give up this fight,” Senator Ed Markey noted. “It begins today, and this coalition will not stop until we win.”
A full markup of the bill and accompanying hearings are expected within the next several weeks.
ISPs have a rich history of trying to use their role as internet gatekeepers both to nickel and dime consumers—and to disadvantage competitors.
In 2005, one North Carolina ISP banned internet phone provider Vonage because it didn’t want the provider competing with its own phone services. In 2012, AT&T blocked FaceTime unless iPhone users ponied up more money. More recently, AT&T has been imposing arbitrary usage caps on broadband users if they use streaming competitors like Netflix, but not if they use AT&T’s own streaming offerings.
Mobile carriers like Sprint have toyed with throttling all video, music, or games unless users pay an additional fee. Verizon now offers “unlimited” data plans that ban HD streaming unless you pay them more money, and the company was also caught last year trying to throttle and upsell firefighters in the midst of a historic forest fire.
Given the lack of competition in many markets, users often can’t switch to another ISP if their existing provider behaves anti-competitively. That’s why net neutrality rules were seen as a useful stopgap measure until lawmakers are willing to embrace policies that drive more competition to market—something telecom lobbyists work tirelessly to avoid.
Gigi Sohn, a former FCC lawyer that helped craft the rules, told Motherboard in a statement that the legislative effort would “return the Internet to where it belongs—in the hands of Internet users, not broadband providers.”
“These protections—both the 2015 net neutrality rules and the FCC’s authority to protect consumers, promote competition and ensure affordable access in the broadband market, are supported by overwhelming numbers of Americans across the political spectrum,” Sohn said.
Numerous surveys have shown that a significant bipartisan majority of Americans supported the rules and opposed the repeal. Still, telecom lobbyists have worked hard to portray net neutrality as a partisan issue in a bid to stall progress. That, once again, could make it difficult for the new bill to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
"If the bill passes the House, then I suppose Senator McConnell and Senator Wicker can try to ignore that momentum, and also ignore the fact that 82 percent of Republicans supported keeping strong rules in place,” Matt Wood, lawyer for consumer group Free Press told Motherboard. “That would be the wrong call on their part, but it wouldn’t be the first time they went the wrong way and ignored what their voters want."
If the bill survives both the House and Senate, it would still need to avoid a veto from President Trump, who has opposed the rules—despite the fact it’s not clear he actually knows what they do—or why they’re important for the nation’s small businesses.
If the bill fails, an ongoing lawsuit against the FCC could also restore the 2015 FCC rules. That lawsuit declared that the FCC ignored hard data and the public in its rush to repeal the rules at the behest of big telecom. The decision to ignore the public and repeal the rules remains widely viewed as one of the least popular tech policy decisions in internet history.