This morning, the U.S. Senate is taking serious, concerted action to address the jobs crisis in America. Kidding! The first two items on today’s agenda are Republican bills to roll back federal regulations: the first is a resolution of disapproval on the Environmental Protection Agency’s cross-border pollution rules, and the second would kill the Federal Communication Commission’s recent net neutrality guidelines.
You may recall that the FCC approved net neutrality regulations last December that said Internet service providers cannot block rival websites, nor can they prioritize connection speeds to different websites or servers. Proponents of true net neutrality have criticized the rules as being too soft—for one, they don’t apply to mobile devices, meaning that net neutrality may not exist in the ever-expanding world of smartphone and tablet Internet use. And even on the regular Internet, the guidelines are a little soft when it comes to not prioritizing traffic—they just say that ISPs cannot “unreasonably” discriminate web traffic, but doesn’t say what “unreasonable” means. That will be decided on a case-by-case basis, when people start complaining.
Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped conservatives from, well, totally freaking out over the FCC’s actions. When the new rules were approved a year ago, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell accused the Obama administration of “mov[ing] forward with what could be the first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet.” Rush Limbaugh crowed about “total government control of the Internet,” and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the sponsor of today’s bill to roll back the rules, said on Fox News that “we’re starting to see the FCC say you have to come to us to get permission to manage your own website.”
Here’s a video compilation of their freak-out last year:
It doesn’t seem likely that today’s vote will succeed, given that most Democrats favor the net neutrality regulations. (Even Senator Scott Brown says he might vote against it, in what we’ll call the “Elizabeth Warren effect.”) Should the Senate pass Hutchison’s bill, President Obama has already said he will veto it anyhow.
But this is an interesting example of where conservative scare-mongering on regulations has actually outpaced the desires of the industry that would benefit from the deregulation. The sad truth is that Internet and phone companies already feel they won this battle with the watered-down rules.
In 2010, as the FCC was writing the net neutrality rules, Verizon spent $13 million on lobbying, AT&T spent $12.5 million and Comcast paid $8.8 billion to influence the process—and when the watered-down rules were passed, it proved their effort was not in vain. In fact, all three companies actively supported the rules after they were written.
As Senator Al Franken pointed out on the Senate floor yesterday, the big ISP and phone companies aren’t even out supporting today’s bill. It’s mostly the work of conservatives who think they have a good talking point on government controlling the Internet, along with groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which launched a website, NoInternetTakeOver.com, to combat the FCC regulations.
These far-right forces will surely get some mileage here with their base of true believers. But in reality, they’re fighting a battle that they’ve already won, if the intent is to prevent real net neutrality from taking hold.
UPDATE: The resolution to nullify the FCC's net neutrality rules failed, 52-46. Every single Democrat opposed it, except Senator Daniel Inouye, who is not present today. Every Republican--including Scott Brown--voted for it, except John McCain, who was also not present.