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.