Net neutrality supporter holding a placard

Net neutrality goes to the wire as Senate Democrats demand vote

Image credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

All Senate Democrats have called on Paul Ryan, the Republican House Speaker, to schedule a vote on the repeal of net neutrality regulations.

In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 in favour of repealing the regulations. The federal regulations are due to be formally lifted on Monday.

Net neutrality is the principle that all web content must be treated equally. American net neutrality regulations were introduced by the Obama administration in 2015, and prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from prioritising, deprioritising or blocking content in order to edge out competition. The regulations were rolled out following instances of ISPs discriminating against content and services produced by their competitors, such as AT&T blocking access to Apple’s FaceTime app until their customers paid for a more expensive plan.

The repeal of the net neutrality regulations have been spearheaded by former ISP lawyer Ajit Pai, who was appointed FCC Chairman by Donald Trump in 2017. Pai has argued that the lifting of the regulations will help to “deliver better, faster and cheaper internet access and more broadband competition.”

The lifting of regulations will allow ISPs to speed up or slow down internet traffic and block content and services based on customer’s payment plans, although the ISPs are required to disclose how they treat traffic. Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have stated that they will not discriminate against legal content following the expiry of the federal net neutrality regulations.

With the Obama-era regulations set to be formally lifted on Monday, 49 Senators have written to Ryan demanding a vote in the House of Representatives on the matter. The letter is signed by all 47 Democratic Senators and the two Independent Senators.

In May, the Senate voted 52-47 to reinstate the regulations, with three Republicans and two Independents joining the Democrats to support net neutrality. In order to overturn the FCC’s decision, however, the House must also vote in support of net neutrality regulations.

Even if the House voted in support of retaining the regulations, Trump’s approval would also be required to overturn the FCC’s decision.

The processing of repealing the Obama-era regulations has been marred by controversy, most notably over its public consultation process, which has drawn nearly 24 million comments, mostly in favour of retaining the regulations.

A study by the Pew Research Centre found widespread evidence of cheating, with many (mostly anti-net neutrality) comments coming from temporary email addresses or bots, being submitted multiple times, and using obviously false names including “Barack Obama”. Calls for an investigation into the public consultation have been ignored by Pai.

Earlier this week, Gizmodo revealed that the FCC had falsely implied that cyberattacks had caused the FCC website’s comments service to fail following two instances of net neutrality proponents flooding the website with comments at the urging of comedian John Oliver.

Net neutrality is supported by the vast majority of the American public and all major internet companies, which united in a “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” in July 2017. Since the repeal of the regulations, 22 states have sued the FCC over its decision.

Many Democratic lawmakers believe that net neutrality will be a major issue during the upcoming 2018 congressional elections, with sitting candidates who supported the FCC’s decision likely to be viewed unfavourably by young voters.

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