Net neutrality protest

Net neutrality repeal overturned by Senate vote

Image credit: REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

Yesterday, Senators voted to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality regulations with a slim majority, requiring three Republicans to join their Democrat rivals.

In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three to two to roll back regulations enshrining the principle of net neutrality – that all traffic should be treated equally – into law. These regulations, which came into force in 2015, forbid internet services providers (ISPs) from speeding up, slowing down or blocking content.

Following the repeal of these regulations, ISPs are still subject to the Federal Trade Commission’s authority and must disclose how they treat web content, although once the regulations are lifted in June there will be no legal requirement to treat content equally.

There have been previous instances of ISPs attempting to deprioritise or entirely block content produced by their competitors, such as in 2012 when AT&T announced that it would disable the FaceTime app on its customers iPhones unless they upgraded to a more expensive plan. Supporters of the federal regulations are concerned that the FCC’s deregulation will result in net neutrality being neglected by profit-driven ISPs.

The vote was forced using a Congressional Review Act, which allows agency decisions to be overturned with majority votes in the Senate and House and presidential approval. Since Donald Trump was inaugurated as President in January 2017, he has worked with the Republican-held Congress to repeal 14 resolutions originally introduced under the Obama administration using the Act; before Trump, the Act has been used just once.

In order for this bill to be passed, three Republican Senators joined the Democrats to form a slim 52-47 majority. Supporters of the bill argue that telecommunications companies cannot be prevented from discriminating against competitors’ content, or boosting their own.

During a press conference following the vote, Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who introduced the bill, said: “A key question for anyone on the campaign trail in 2018 will now be: “Do you support net neutrality?””

Markey argued that the movement to protect neutrality was made up of people from “every walk of American life”, while its opponents side with “powerful special interests and corporate donors who are thriving under this administration”.

Although net neutrality supporters will be cheered by the Senate vote, the bill is unlikely to pass through the strongly Republican-held House of Representatives. Some Republicans have come out as supporters of net neutrality, but the majority consider the Obama administration’s rules to have been an instance of overbearing government regulation. Even if sufficient numbers of Republican Representatives are willing to support the bill, it is highly improbable that Trump would be willing to give final approval for reinstating Obama’s net neutrality regulations.

Meanwhile, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who has spearheaded the net neutrality repeal since being appointed to the position by Trump in January 2017, dismissed criticism of the FCC’s decision as “scare tactics”.

“It’s disappointing that Senate Democrats forced this resolution through by a narrow margin,” Pai said in a statement. “But ultimately, I’m confident that their effort to reinstate heavy-handed government regulation of the internet will fail.”

Following the FCC’s decision to roll back federal net neutrality regulations, more than two dozen state governments have started the process of introducing their own legislation to protect net neutrality.

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