United States Senate prepares for floor vote on net neutrality

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{{tasks|news|re-review}}Tuesday, January 9, 2018

On Monday, Democrats in the United States Senate announced they had gained enough sponsors to perform a congressional review of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s December 2017 reversal of previous rules regulating Internet service providers, commonly called Net Neutrality.

Under the Congressional Review Act, if 30 senators co-sponsor the action, United States Congress can vote on whether to overrule a decision made by a federal agency such as the FCC. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate would have vote in favor, and President Donald Trump would have to sign the review.

On Monday, Claire McCaskill of Missouri announced she was the 30th senator to agree to sponsor the floor vote. "What I've heard from the thousands of Missourians who've contacted my office is simple — consumers should have protected, free, and open access to the online content of their choosing," she said in a statement.

Senator Claire McCaskill.
Image: Sen. McCaskill's Office.

The Obama-era Net Neutrality rules were revoked last month. On December 14, as protesters gathered in Washington D.C., the United States Federal Communications Commission under Chairman Ajit Pai voted 3-2 to overturn the 2015 decision, which forbade Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T from blocking individual websites or charging websites or customers more for faster load times.

Specifically, the 2015 decision placed the Internet under Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act, which established that Internet access must be regulated under the same rules as a utility. Currently, in the U.S., telephones are regulated in this way, but cable television is not. Cable providers can offer bundled services and otherwise select which channels to offer customers; they do not have to offer access to every channel the way ISPs have offered access to the whole Internet. The new rules voted on December 14 transfer the Internet from the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission to the Federal Trade Commission, which means instead of being forbidden from blocking websites or offering different access speeds, ISPs will only be required to disclose having done so.

Telecom analyst Gigi Sohn, who worked with Pai's predecessor Tom Wheeler in 2015, said, "There are going to be fast lanes and slow lanes[...] As a consumer, that means some of your favorite websites are going to load more slowly, and it also may mean some of your favorite content goes away because the provider just can't pay the fee."

Former Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson said, "Net neutrality allowed something like Etsy to hang out a shingle on the web and give it a try".

Supporters of the new rule argue Net Neutrality regulations were unnecessary. Commissioner Michael O'Reilly pointed out the Internet "has functioned without net neutrality rules for far longer than it has without [sic] them."

"Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence," said Chairman Pai, who argued removing the rules would make the Internet freer and more open.

"[T]he internet will continue to work tomorrow just as it always has," promised AT&T Senior Executive Vice President Bob Quinn, who said his company would not block websites or discriminate with respect to content.

Opposition was organized almost immediately and was not limited to plans for congressional review: The Attorneys General for the states of New York and Washington have both announced plans for lawsuits against the new rules.. The United States Congress also has the authority to overrule the FCC's decision by passing legislation. One such bill, House Resolution 4585, or the "Save Net Neutrality Act of 2017," was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on December 7.

According to a poll conducted the week of December 6 by the University of Maryland, more than 80% of registered U.S. voters opposed the repeal of Net Neutrality, 75% of registered Republicans, 89% of registered Democrats, and 86% of independents, those not registered to either party. Before the vote, the FCC had accepted comments on the measure from the public through its website, FCC.gov. However, there have been allegations that many of the comments offered in support of the rollback were fakes. Before the vote took place, attorneys general from seventeen states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to the FCC asking the vote be delayed until the matter could be investigated.

The FCC's decision must be published in the U.S. Federal Register before congressional review can take place or any lawsuits filed.


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