Today a bill passed the Senate that would reinstate the net neutrality rules put in place by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015, and block a change that’s supposed to take effect on June 11. Under the current Obama era rules, internet providers have to provide equal access to all content at the same speeds, the internet under these rules is neutral.
In December of last year under Trump the FCC voted to repeal these regulations and allow providers to block or slow certain content and or charge for certain content to be at provided at higher speed. When these rules take effect next month providers can give preference to their own content or that of partner companies, and functionally limit the access that people have to content from competitor companies. The bill up for a vote today would nullify the FCC’s 2017 vote and keep the current net neutrality regulations in place.
The movement of this bill today is meaningful for a few reasons. First, it got some unexpected Republican support. All Senate Democrats and Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine are known to support net neutrality and predictably voted to pass the bill, but so did Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John Kennedy (R-Louisiana). This shows that there are some cracks in the Republican bulwark against net neutrality.
Passing this bill also gives Representatives in the House an opportunity to let voters know where they stand. Because this is an issue that impacts people’s day-to-day lives in a very real way it is expected to be a key point during the midterm elections this year, especially for younger voters. If the bill gets a hearing in the House a lot of voters will be watching very closely to see how their elected official votes and this could be a tipping point in tight elections. However, the passage through the Senate is unfortunately not as significant a win as many would hope. There is a good chance that the bill will not even get a hearing in the House, and if it does it’s unlikely to pass. And even if it does clear those hurdles the White House has not shown any inclination that it will get signed.
Even if the bill does pass and does get signed into law it doesn’t really fix the issue of net neutrality. This particular bill just uses the Congressional Review Act to cancel the FCC’s December vote. This is not a law to mandate net neutrality. The FCC will ultimately still have the power to cancel or change net neutrality again in future. When the FCC voted to change the rules last December there was public outcry and disappointment. In response several of the largest internet providers pledged to maintain net neutrality for legal content even after the rules expire in June. But there is nothing compelling them to actually do that once the rules are gone, especially given how few choices most people have for internet providers.
The internet may not be a utility in the same sense that water or electricity are, but it has become essential for education, finding and applying for jobs, accessing information, and a million other things. It no longer makes sense to leave its functionality in the hands of either the providers or the FCC, which is non-elected body. Whether or not today’s bill goes the distance and saves net neutrality for now, we still need laws to actually codify it for the future.