In the fight for the future of media and democracy, the US Senate’s vote Wednesday to restore net neutrality ranks as a major victory. It is not the final victory, mind you, but the bipartisan vote to overturn the Trump administration’s assault on the first amendment of the Internet signals that this fight can and will be won.
By a wider than expected 52-47 margin, senators rejected the decision of Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission to gut protections for a free and open Internet. The vote assured that the debate about net neutrality—which the Trump administration and its allies had hoped to end with the FCC decision last November—will be central to 2018 contests for control of the Congress.
Senate Democrats, led by Ed Markey of Massachusetts, used the Congressional Review Act—an oversight tool that permits Congress to repeal rulings made by agencies such as the FCC—to force Wednesday’s vote. Under the CRA law, a simple majority vote is all that’s needed to overturn a rule or regulation. Markey and his allies got that in the Senate, with the support of all 49 Democrats and three Republicans who broke with the administration on the issue: Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. (Grassroots organizing and campaigning by groups such as Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Color of Change, Free Press and Common Cause focused on swinging Republicans and helped to assure that the vote would be bipartisan.)
Getting a similar result in the House will be harder. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and his majority caucus are rigidly pro-corporate; they will erect every possible roadblock. But if Democrats take the House this fall, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has indicated that she is prepared to put net neutrality on the agenda. If both the House and Senate vote to overturn the FCC decision, that will focus attention squarely on the White House—putting pressure on the president to reconsider and, if he does not, assuring that net neutrality will be an issue in the 2020 presidential election.
Wednesday’s Senate vote was a blow to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican congressional leaders. They have worked hard to defend the FCC’s decision to eliminate net neutrality and hand off the Internet to telecommunications corporations that want to create fast lanes for paying content and slow lanes for everyone else. There is no popular support for the change. But the special-interest money that will flow to Republicans who side with the FCC will be so substantial that GOP strategists have been betting the party’s candidates in key House and Senate races will come out ahead.
That could turn out to be the worst bet of 2018.
With the high-profile Senate vote raising the ante on the issue, a key Democratic supporter of net neutrality, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz says: “There is nowhere to hide, and there are no excuses. You are either for a free and open internet or you are not.”
Democrats have indicated that they are ready to make net neutrality a 2018 campaign issue. If they follow through, the potential for drawing a new generation of tech-savvy voters to the polls will increase. And Democratic congressional leaders are well aware that those voters could tip vital local, state and national races this fall.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, has said that: “The Democratic position is very simple. Let’s treat the internet like the public good that it is.”
Republicans who have sided with the telecommunications industry and against consumers are already feeling heat from Democrats who promise to vote for a free and open Internet.
In Texas, for instance, Congressman Beto O’Rourke has made support for net neutrality central to his challenge to Republican Senator Ted Cruz.
O’Rourke has highlighted the difference between himself and Cruz on this issue, going so far as to cut a video targeted at small-business owners, who will be particularly harmed by any narrowing of access to the Internet. “Standing together,” O’Rourke says in the video, “we are more than a match for the corporations and the special interests, and we will be able to restore net neutrality to the Internet, and make sure that we will have an open and free Internet for everyone in this country to use.”
If enough candidates make net neutrality an issue, and if enough of them win, Democrats could use strong congressional votes, and aggressive negotiations with the administration, to tilt the balance back toward digital democracy.
Such a result might have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. But with the Senate vote, there is a renewed sense of optimism among net neutrality advocates.
“Despite the influence from big cable and telecommunications companies who have poured oceans of money in their attempt to kill net neutrality rules, the Senate stood on the side of the American people in voting to pass this resolution. The Senate stood on the side of free speech, civic engagement, equal opportunity, and innovation. Ultimately, the Senate stood on the right side of American history,” says former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who on Wednesday declared, “This is an important first step to overturn the FCC’s historic blunder.”