Future Tense

The Next Battleground for Net Neutrality Is Congress. And Republicans Have the Upper Hand.

Rep. Blackburn is support the destruction of net neutrality with her new bill.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Now that the Federal Communications Commission has gutted network neutrality by dismantling protections passed in 2015 that prohibited internet providers from blocking or slowing down access to websites, members of Congress are taking their own whack at kneecapping the open internet.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, just dropped a network neutrality bill with a rather Orwellian title: the Open Internet Preservation Act. Though the law would prevent internet providers from blocking access to websites, it would still allow companies like Comcast and AT&T to charge websites to reach users at faster speeds, behavior that the old net-neutrality rules prohibited, and which proponents of the concept argue would put websites with fewer resources at a disadvantage to large companies.

Paid prioritization would mean that some websites load faster than others, and that those that couldn’t afford fast-lane prices would be slower to load, and therefore less appealing to internet users. The House Republican bill, if passed, would also pre-empt states that could otherwise write their own local net neutrality protections, a feature of the FCC’s new anti-net neutrality rules, too. On the Senate side, Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, has said that Congress should unite to work on a legislative fix for net neutrality rather than defer to the FCC, although he’s generally in favor of the FCC’s deregulatory approach.

If Republicans were to pass a bill, it would tie the bow on the FCC’s efforts to dismantle net neutrality. But there’s also growing pushback across the aisle.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts was the first in line to announce a plan to challenge the FCC’s decision to undo the open internet protections. Last Thursday, the day the new rules were passed by the Republican-majority FCC, Markey said he and 23 other senators are preparing to introduce a Congressional Review Act resolution that, if passed, would restore the Obama-era net neutrality protections that the FCC just voted to rescind. Just before that, last Tuesday, a group of 39 Democratic senators sent a letter to the FCC urging the agency to delay the vote, considering all the serious irregularities with the public comment process since the proposal to repeal net neutrality was introduced, including millions of comments from stolen identities, bots, Russian email addresses, and even a few dead people.

The idea of using a Congressional Review Act resolution was bolstered on Friday by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said at a press conference that a reversal of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal “doesn’t need the support of the majority leader,” according to The Hill. “We can bring it to the floor and force a vote. So, there will be a vote to repeal the rule that the FCC passed.” Since Trump took office, Congress has reversed more than a dozen agency actions—but these were Obama-era rules. This is the opposite situation.

Getting a simple majority in the Senate won’t be an easy lift. Though a small handful of Republicans in Congress were in favor of asking the FCC to delay its net neutrality repeal or have spoken out in support of not removing the open internet protections, fans of the 2015 open internet rules in the Senate are far sparser. Among Republicans, the only on-the-record supporter might be Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News in November that she does not support the FCC’s plan to undo net neutrality and that “internet providers must not manage their system in an anti-competitive way that limits consumers’ choices.” Once Democrat Doug Jones is sworn in to represent Alabama, though, the Republican majority in the Senate will slim to 51-49.

If Republicans are successful in passing an anti-net neutrality bill, it could prove far worse for the future of an open internet than the FCC’s deregulatory move last week. The FCC only needed a few months to repeal its actions from two years prior. Undoing legislation, though, requires Congress to be productive enough to vote something into a law, which is a much more difficult proposition than getting the majority of a five-person agency on board. Codifying into law the ability of internet providers to charge access to reach websites faster would be a gift to the telecoms, who stand to make a lot of money from being about to charge both subscribers to access the internet and charge websites for priority access to users.

And while the FCC’s net neutrality reversal is expected to be challenged by multiple groups in court, including a handful of state attorneys general, people who are concerned about a future where internet providers will be allowed to charge websites a fee to load faster than their competitors might want to pick up the phone and call their lawmakers—especially if they’re Republican.