Above Photo: Senator Ed Markey plans to introduce a resolution to restore the FCC’s net neutrality rules.
IF YOU’RE SICK of hearing about net neutrality, we’ve got bad news: The issue’s only going to get bigger.
Now that the Federal Communications Commission has jettisoned its rules banning internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against lawful content, the issue is heading for Congress. And if the activists who first brought the issue into the limelight have a say, it will become an issue in the 2018 election campaign.
Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts) already announced plans to introduce a joint resolution to reverse the FCC’s decision. Several advocacy groups, including Demand Progress, Free Press, and Fight for the Future are calling on Congress to pass it. It’s a long shot: both houses of Congress and the president would need to sign on. But letting net neutrality die is politically risky for Republicans, some of whom are pushing for scaled-back consumer protections to replace the FCC’s rules.
The idea of net neutrality is popular with voters. A recent Morning Consult poll found that 52 percent of respondents (including 53 percent of Republicans) favor the FCC’s recently abandoned rules, though support has dropped since June. Another poll, conducted by University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, found 83 percent of respondents, including 75 percent of Republicans wanted to keep the rules after being told arguments for and against them.
Democrats and advocacy groups are already using internet-policy decisions as political weapons against Republicans. After Congress voted in March, along party lines, to overturn Obama-era internet privacy laws, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran Google search ads criticizing Senators Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and Dean Heller (R-Nevada) over the vote, according to Politico. The group Fight for the Future ran billboard ads in the home states of several Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the privacy rules. The billboards cited the amount of money each officeholder received from the telecommunications industry, and accused them of selling out their constituents’ privacy. In August, the group ran similar billboards in several states targeting Republicans who opposed the FCC’s net neutrality rules.
The targets included Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), who is now running for the Senate. This week Blackburn said she will introduce a bill that would ban internet service providers from blocking or throttling content but also bar states from passing their own net neutrality laws and limit the FCC’s authority to make future rules. The bill wouldn’t explicitly ban providers from creating so-called “fast lanes” for certain content, the issue that launched net neutrality into public consciousness in 2014. Blackburn, who sponsored the resolution overturning the FCC’s privacy bills in the House, previously announced an internet privacy bill that has yet to move forward.
Advocacy groups remain unimpressed. “Marsha Blackburn is not fooling anyone,” Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer said in a statement.
Blackburn’s office didn’t respond to our request for comment, but her moves show that Republicans are thinking about net neutrality. “I think it could become, not a top-three issue, but a salient issue in 2018,” says Sara Solow, who served as a domestic policy adviser to Hillary Clinton during her 2016 campaign.
“Democrats are riled up about it, the base understands the issue, and while the general public may not understand all the particulars, the general public gets that they should have uninhibited access to the internet,” Solow says.
Another possible political point: Former Obama adviser Karen Kornbluh says the FCC’s decision to move ahead with repealing the net neutrality rules despite an apparent flood of fake comments will bolster Democrats’ claims that the decision was made to appease special interests.
Mark Jamison of conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute says that though net neutrality is getting more mainstream attention, it’s still a bit of a niche issue. But he does think it will be at least a minor 2018 campaign issue. “It makes for a wonderful ‘good versus evil story,’ ” he says. Jamison says Democrats can paint Republicans and broadband providers as the bad guys while Republicans must explain their opposition to the FCC’s rules in terms of infrastructure investment and the long-term of effects of regulation on innovation.
The big question is not whether it will come up, but how much spotlight the issue will receive. Michael Mandel of the Progressive Policy Institute think tank doubts net neutrality will get much airtime compared with taxes, sexual misconduct, and healthcare, unless one or more big internet providers changes its offerings in response to the change in the rules. As WIRED has explained before, that’s unlikely to happen next year, since broadband companies will likely want to avoid providing lawmakers with justification for writing new net neutrality laws.
But it’s clear something has already changed. Actor Mark Hamill took the time to tweet about net neutrality during the opening weekend of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, sparking a small Twitter war with Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Donald Trump Jr. You’ll be hearing more about next year.