Outnumbered Democrats Say They'll Still Fight for Net NeutralityBy
FCC begins dismantling Obama-era rules under Republicans
‘Millions’ to lend voices says one Democratic regulator
Democrats are outnumbered in Washington, and that may leave them little leverage to stop Republicans intent on dismantling net neutrality rules that were a signature Obama-era regulation.
But they say they will keep trying.
“I never believe all is lost,” said Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democrat at the Federal Communications Commission.
Clyburn’s two Republican colleagues on the commission out-voted her Thursday to begin formally considering weakening the rules, which prohibit broadband providers such as AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. from blocking or slowing some web traffic in favor of other content -- their own or a paying customer’s. The action begins months of consideration leading to a second, conclusive vote after a comment period that ends in August.
The prospect of changing the rules has produced a public outpouring, demonstrating the populist appeal of an issue that has pitted Silicon Valley and its Democratic backers against long-established telecoms. The FCC has registered more than 2 million emailed comments -- many after TV comedian John Oliver urged viewers to act. When the rules were put in place by a Democratic-controlled FCC in 2015, some 4 million people offered comments.
It seems unlikely the rule supporters can win over Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, the Republicans who make up the agency’s majority and gave full-throated endorsements to the change. Pai said the action marked the beginning of repealing “utility-style regulation,” and O’Rielly told reporters he has “raised concerns with all of the rules and the need for any rules” to enforce net neutrality, or equal treatment web traffic.
Under Pai’s proposal the agency will consider lifting bans on blocking web traffic, and against building “fast lanes” that favor those willing to pay more for faster service. The agency also will consider whether to keep a ban against impairing or degrading web traffic, known as throttling.
Democrats also hold a minority of both chambers of Congress and haven’t been willing to take up Republican lawmakers’ offers to write a law that would supersede the FCC’s efforts out of suspicion the legislation would weaken protections.
On Thursday, Democrats called for resistance. Senator Maggie Hassan, of New Hampshire, said she will “continue fighting” and Senator Kamala Harris, of California, said she will “fight to protect the net neutrality rules.”
“The movement to defend net neutrality will not stop,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “I will oppose any legislative efforts that weaken or undermine the Open Internet Order” -- the formal name for the 2015 rule passed while President Barack Obama was in office.
Republicans asked for a negotiated peace to end a debate that’s raged for more than a decade.
“We need a statute offering clear and enduring rules,” said Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that oversees the FCC. “Unless grounded in legislation, partisan policy changes through administrative action can be fleeting.”
Pai, a Republican appointed chairman by President Donald Trump, wants to remove strong legal authority that critics say over-regulates telephone and cable providers, and that defenders say is needed to enforce fair treatment of web traffic.
Republicans say the regulation discourages investment and hamstrings broadband companies. The rules were passed at the urging of President Barack Obama, and Democrats say they’re needed to prevent unfair treatment of web traffic by companies that control access to homes and smartphones.
NCTA-The Internet and Television Association, a trade group with Comcast among its members, said the vote “appropriately begins the agency’s efforts to restore a modern regulatory framework that will promote internet freedom.”
USTelecom, a trade group for broadband providers including AT&T and Verizon, said in a news release the vote moved policy toward “a modern, constructive policy framework.”
The Internet Association, with members including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Netflix Inc., said it opposed to Pai’s changes. Broadband providers “should not be able to use their position as gatekeepers to prioritize their own content over others,” Michael Beckerman, president of the group, said in an emailed statement.