Senate Democrats on Nov. 10 turned back a Republican attempt to repeal federal rules designed to prevent internet service providers from discriminating against those who send content and other services over their networks.
Republicans argued that “net neutrality” rules announced by the Federal Communications Commission last December were another example of federal regulatory overreach that would stifle internet investment and innovation.
But Democrats, and the White House in a veto threat, said repealing the FCC rules would imperil openness and freedom on the internet. “It would be ill-advised to threaten the very foundations of innovation in the internet economy and the democratic spirit that has made the internet a force for social progress around the world,” the White House said.
The vote against taking up the bill, along party lines, was 52-46.
The net-neutrality rules, approved last December by a 3-2 vote with the three FCC Democrats in favor and the two Republicans opposed, tried to find a middle ground between phone and cable companies desiring more control over their networks and the content providers wanting unfettered access to the internet.
The rules bar service providers from favoring or discriminating against internet content and services, including online calling services such as Skype and web video services such as Netflix, that could compete with their core operations. They require broadband providers to let subscribers access all legal online content and prohibit wireless carriers from blocking access to any websites or competing services.
The new rules also require carriers to disclose their network management practices. But they give wireless companies more leeway to manage data traffic, because wireless systems have more bandwidth constraints than wired networks.
Some ed-tech advocacy groups worry the new rules, which go into effect Nov. 20, don’t go far enough in protecting schools and other consumers.
Steven Worona, director of policy and network programs for the higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE, said the net-neutrality rules contain loopholes that one day could lead major internet providers to limit access to campuses that can’t pay premium prices for web service.
“If the rules are not effective in maintaining an open internet, the worst-case scenario is that a bidding war develops to get access to high speed,” Worona said when the rules were passed. “In that type of situation, the deepest pockets have the best chance of accessing their end users. … In that case, it wouldn’t be surprising if smaller schools have more trouble than larger universities.”
The House, where Republicans command a majority, voted last April to repeal the rules, saying the FCC lacked the authority to set internet policy and that there was no need for the federal government to intervene in an already open internet. They said the rules would stifle investment in broadband systems.
The rules, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, are “a stunning reversal from a hands-off approach to the internet that federal policy makers have taken for more than a decade.”
She brought up the resolution under the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to challenge regulations issued by federal agencies.
But Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the resolution was misguided. “It will add uncertainty to the economy. It will hinder small businesses dependent on fair broadband access. It will undermine innovation. It will hamper investment in digital commerce.”
The rules give providers flexibility to manage data to deal with network congestion as long as they publicly disclose those practices. They do not specifically ban higher charges for faster transmission of data, but do outlaw “unreasonable network discrimination.”
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said those trying to overturn the rules say they want to “liberate the internet when, in fact, what they want to do is imprison the internet within the hands of the most powerful communications entities today to act as the gatekeepers.”
Rockefeller and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., another backer of the FCC rules, cited a letter to the FCC chairman written before the rules were finalized. The letter stated that “a process that results in commonsense baseline rules is critical to ensuring that the internet remains a key engine of economic growth, innovation, and global competitiveness.” Among the signees were the CEOs of Google, Amazon.com, Netflix, Facebook, YouTube, and eBay.