In a shocking reversal, the Senate voted 52–47 to disapprove of the rollback of network neutrality—the policy that treats broadband and wireless data as common carriers. That protection required internet service providers to treat all internet traffic the same, rather than blocking, throttling, or otherwise interfering with access to particular services. All 49 Democratic senators were joined, somewhat unexpectedly, by three Republicans—Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—in supporting the resolution.
Last December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to roll back Obama-era protections of net neutrality, a move derided by internet proponents and some technology firms, but supported by many telecommunication companies and regulation-averse Republicans. The FCC rules were set to go into effect on June 11, triggering a panic among the public, who feared that internet-service providers would initiate higher or special fees for access to popular services.
This latest vote was taken under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to repeal agency regulations via a majority vote. Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, continue to support the position that net neutrality is essential for an “open internet,” a notion that has become a koan more than a description of how internet service really works. Even so, Schumer’s case for repeal—“Let’s treat the internet like the public good that it is”—is consistent with the spirit of common carriage as it applies to other utilities and services, like electricity and transit. Democrats like Schumer fear that rural areas, schools, and lower-income users would have difficulty securing internet access absent common-carrier protections. Proponents of technological innovation, including many Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic commissioners of the FCC, also contend that net neutrality allows upstarts the freedom to invent and pursue new products and services. The “next Netflix,” as this argument often goes, could be quashed in a regulatory environment in which start-ups must pay special fees to broadband providers for access to consumers.
But as I’ve argued before, network-neutrality proponents also ignore the fact that the commercial internet as it actually exists today is far less free and open than its original designers and current proponents might think. A small number of giant technology companies, like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Netflix, have made innovation difficult anyway—as well as severely damaged civic life. The careless practices of firms like Facebook seem unlikely to negatively affect the company’s prospects, even in the short term. The internet might have become a public utility, but it’s also one that brings as much distress as it alleviates.
Since the FCC’s December vote, the White House has also come under scrutiny after news broke that President Trump’s onetime personal attorney Michael Cohen’s consulting firm took a series of payments from AT&T. Some think those payments look like a pay-for-play scheme to win presidential support for the telco’s interests, among them the reduced regulation that repealing net neutrality could provide.
Beyond the familiar partisan arguments and the din of possible impropriety from actors like Cohen, there are other factors at play in supporting or opposing the Senate resolution. Speaking on the Senate floor before the resolution came to a vote Wednesday afternoon, South Dakota Senator John Thune argued that a partisan back-and-forth on net neutrality won’t solve the issue, but only promises to treat the issue as a political hot potato; instead, he advocated for a bipartisan bill to limit the FCC’s powers as it relates to internet service in a deliberate, permanent fashion.
Despite celebrations online for the Senate’s decision to debate, and then the vote of disapproval itself, there’s still a long road ahead for net neutrality’s hypothetical restoration. Now that it has passed the Senate, the measure goes to the House of Representatives for consideration, making today just another step in the ongoing saga of consumer internet regulation. A rollback is hardly guaranteed. The House has been debating its own legislation and might prefer to advance a bill of its own devising. And the White House is unlikely to sign the resolution even if it passes the House anyway.
Meanwhile, the internet hums along. People argue about matters of greater and lesser import, watch television, post Facebook updates, delete emails, buy gewgaws. Overall, it overtakes the lives of millions of Americans, touching nearly every aspect of their routines. Even children, even toddlers, like mine, who watches streaming videos on a tablet behind me as I write this now. It’s no wonder that the internet feels like such a precious, irreplaceable element of contemporary life. No wonder that so many of its users would watch with bated breath as Senate votes were counted, and merely for a resolution to disapprove of the FCC’s action.
It’s hard to imagine how daily activities of all kinds would be different without the internet as we know it. But it’s also worth remembering that the internet won’t vanish, with or without network neutrality. Instead, for now at least, it will carry on, awaiting the next turn in this saga. It’s a saga built for the internet, which thrives on by-the-minute obsession with twists and turns of all kinds. “We have more work to do,” some net-neutrality proponents posted as the votes came in, or “the fight isn’t over yet.” And still, many others tweeted things like, “Net neutrality has been restored!” That’s something we can always count on the internet to deliver: inaccuracy, right there alongside the truth.