A resolution to restore the FCC’s net neutrality rules passed the Senate on Wednesday, giving Democrats a victory on what they see as a potent issue going into the 2018 midterms.
The Senate voted 52-47 on the resolution. Three Republicans joined with Democrats — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — on the procedural vote.
If it ultimately passed by Congress and signed by President Trump — a big if — the net neutrality rules that the FCC had in place since 2015 would be restored. The agency’s Republican majority voted in December to repeal them.
A final vote is expected later on Wednesday afternoon.
The FCC voted 3-2 to roll back many of the existing net neutrality rules, including those prohibiting internet service providers from blocking or throttling of content, or from selling so-called “fast lanes” for speedier access to consumers.
The repeal goes into effect on June 11.
The FCC’s Republican majority, led by chairman Ajit Pai, claim that the rules were choking off investment and imposed service regulation on broadband akin to that placed on phone companies in the 1930s. The FCC also repealed the regulatory underpinning for the rules, in which internet service was classified as a common carrier.
The FCC’s move stirred opposition in Congress and in statehouses. Lawmakers in California, for instance, are weighing legislation, while a coalition of 23 state attorneys general are seeking to turn back the FCC’s action in court.
The Senate resolution — led by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) — enables Congress to overturn agency actions within a certain timeframe and by majority vote.
On the Senate floor, Markey said that “this is a defining vote, the most important vote that we are going to have in this generation on net neutrality.”
“It goes right to the heart of our identity as a free and open society,” he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said that the interest in the issue crosses geographic lines. “For rural America, without the Markey resolution, it means that the net moves along at a snail’s pace. It means rural businesses have a harder time getting off the ground and reaching customers,” he said.
The Senate’s move may end up being merely symbolic. It must pass in the GOP-controlled House, and it also must secure the signature of Trump. The White House has expressed its support for the FCC’s move in December to repeal the net neutrality rules, and Trump has often touted his ability to roll back government regulations.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that the resolution was a “bizarre exercise” that isn’t “going anywhere.” He called it a “political, partisan charade.”
He noted that he proposed legislation back in 2015 that would ban blocking and throttling, as well as paid prioritization, but he has so far been unable to get a co-sponsor from the Democratic side.
He said that the debate has been driven by “fear-mongering, hypotheticals, misdirection and outright false claims.” He also said that what is happening is that the issue has been “bouncing back and forth” as the FCC’s ideological makeup shifts with each presidential administration.
The FCC did not roll back rules that require internet providers to disclose their traffic management practices, with complaints largely handled through the Federal Trade Commission. Net neutrality advocates believe that the FTC’s authority to do so is weaker than that of the FCC.
Internet providers have characterized net neutrality as an issue that has yet to become a problem.
Some of those companies are seizing on the latest debate to call for rules that apply not just to them, but internet companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. AT&T’s Tim McKone, its executive vice president of federal relations, said that they favor legislation “that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protections for all internet users.”