Senate lawmakers on Wednesday voted 52–47 to save Obama-era net neutrality protections and keep the internet open and competitive. The move is a symbolic win for technology companies, consumer groups, and Democrats who lobbied aggressively against deregulation, but the resolution still faces an uphill battle in the House and could be vetoed by President Donald Trump if it lands on his desk.
Back in December, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3–2 to repeal net neutrality protections. Senate supporters of net neutrality protections used the Congressional Review Act (or CRA for short), a law that allows Congress to reconsider decisions by administrative agencies within a window of their approval, to put forth legislation that would overturn the sweeping act to deregulate the "neutral" internet as we know it. If successful, the resolution would keep the net neutrality rules prohibiting internet service providers from slowing websites or charging premiums for "fast lanes" for specific services or higher-quality streaming firmly in place.
Voting to approve the CRA is a last stand for Democrats in the Senate before net neutrality rules officially expire on June 11 — and a way for senators to signal their position on what could be a potent issue in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. In a procedural vote to open the debate on the resolution, three Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — joined all 49 Democratic senators and voted yes to proceed, setting the expectation that the measure would pass the Senate early on.
The final vote, which came down close to 4 in the afternoon, reflected the same breakdown of ayes and nays.
"Today, we show the American people who sides with them, and who sides with the powerful special interests and corporate donors who are thriving under this administration," Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who led the CRA effort, said on the Senate floor. "My hope is that before the end of this day, the Senate will vote to overturn the Trump FCC and restore net neutrality."
The repeal of net neutrality has long been a contentious political issue. FCC chair Ajit Pai, who was nominated to his current role by President Trump, led the charge last year to undo the rules, a move favored by many Republicans who want to see Obama-era regulations rolled back.
Pai argued that rolling back net neutrality rules would restore the "light touch" framework that governed the internet for much of its existence. But among consumers, technology companies, and internet advocacy groups alike, undoing net neutrality protections have consistently proven to be unpopular — even across party lines.
"On June 12, after these rules go into effect ... no consumer in this country is going to see any change from what they see today," South Dakota Sen. John Thune, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Wednesday on the Senate floor, echoing Pai's argument. The Republican senator said the resolution was a "political, partisan charade" and called for Democrats to work on "bipartisan legislation" that would "put internet principles in place and protections in place, but use a light-touch regulatory approach."
But Senate Democrats argued that a repeal of net neutrality would take away the level playing field of the internet and favor large cable and internet companies, ultimately harming average Americans.
"[The FCC] wants to have a fast lane for the rich and powerful, and it wants to have a slow lane where you're hardly moving at all for the rest of us — all of working America," said Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
After more than three hours of debate, the Senate voted to pass the CRA resolution. But the measure still faces a long road ahead. To successfully roll back the FCC action, the CRA needs a majority of votes in both the House and the Senate, as well as President Trump's signature. (Currently, Republicans hold a commanding 236-193 majority in the House of Representatives.)
Still, that isn't deterring pro–net neutrality groups from calling on the public to take a strong stance. "Access to the entire internet is essential to the daily lives of many Americans," said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a trade organization formed by members of the tech industry, in a statement. "It is essential that rules be reinstated through any means necessary, including the CRA, courts, or bipartisan legislation."