WASHINGTON — In an unusual victory for Democrats, the Senate voted narrowly Wednesday to keep in place so-called “net neutrality” rules that prevent internet providers from blocking or slowing users’ access to certain websites and charging more for faster delivery of some content.
Senators voted 52 to 47, mostly along party lines, to stop the Federal Communications Commission from repealing the rules that were put in place three years ago under former President Barack Obama. The repeal is scheduled to take effect on June 11.
Three Republicans – Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – joined all 49 Democrats in voting to keep the regulations in place.
But their quest to retain the rules may be short-lived. The measure now goes to the House, where it’s not certain GOP leaders will be willing to take it up. Evenif the legislation clears Congress, it still would have to be signed into law by President Trump, who has been critical of net neutrality.
Still, Democrats argued that net neutrality is needed to make sure that all internet content is treated equally. Without it, they said, consumers could end up paying higher prices for slower service or even be stopped from accessing some of their favorite websites or apps.
“This is our chance – our best chance – to make sure the internet stays accessible and affordable for all Americans,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY.
“Either we stand with everyday Americans or with the massive corporations who have found a new way to make money off of them,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Republicans countered that the rules are heavy-handed and an example of government overregulation, and they accused Democrats of using the issue to fire up young voters ahead of this fall’s elections.
“They know they won’t ultimately be successful, but they want to campaign on their desire to add new regulations to the internet,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“This isn’t about serious legislating,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. “It’s about political theatre.”
The FCC, then chaired by Democrat Tom Wheeler, enacted the net neutrality rules in 2015 to prevent internet service providers from blocking or throttling legal content that users sought to access. The rules also prevented providers from charging users higher fees for providing faster delivery of some content.
By 2017, however, the FCC had a new chairman, Republican Ajit Pai, who had been appointed by Trump.
Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC voted 3-2, along party lines, last December to discard the rules and replace them with a light-touch set of regulations that do not prohibit internet service providers from blocking or speeding up access to sites or giving priority to their own content. If they do, however, they are required to disclose it.
Providers have said they won't block or throttle legal websites but have left open the possibility that they might charge more for some data delivery.
Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, sought to stop the FCC’s repeal of the Obama-era rules by using their authority under the Congressional Review Act to nullify the commission’s vote last December. Under the review act, just 30 senators were needed to force a vote on the measure, and all 49 Democrats backed Markey’s resolution.
The House, however, has a much higher threshold. A majority, or 218 votes, would be needed there to force a vote.
The FCC’s effort to halt net neutrality also is facing a legal challenge in some states. Twenty-three attorney’s general have filed a lawsuit to stop the repeal of the rules.