It’s not over: What just happened with net neutrality?

17 May 2018

Protesters in Philadelphia advocating for net neutrality. Image: Michael Candelori/Shutterstock

The repeal of net neutrality may not be certain yet.

It has been more than five months since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US voted to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality rules, with three out of five commissioners involved choosing to end the regulation.

In the short space of time since the ruling, many people in the US have been doing their best to reverse the decision. In January of this year, 22 attorneys general across the country commenced legal action against the FCC’s decision.

Yesterday (16 May) was a victory for those who wish to retain net neutrality and avoid a future where the internet is multi-tiered and stacked against those who cannot afford the fastest connections, as The Washington Post reported that the US Senate approved a resolution targeting the FCC’s December decision.

If successful, the move could see the FCC’s regulations restored. The rules are officially expected to expire on 11 June of this year and, with US midterm elections approaching, lawmakers may be considering their position ahead of countrywide voting.

Still unclear how many voters this will motivate

Marc Martin, a telecoms lawyer at Perkins Coie in Washington, told The Washington Post that the vote could have “significant political effects”, but warned that it is still not clear how many voters will be motivated enough by net neutrality to show up at the polls.

Senators voted 52 to 47 to overturn the Restoring Internet Freedom Order issued by the FCC last year. Using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), senators were able to reverse the decision reached by the government agency. While the Republican party still controls Congress, and a measure such as this would not have made it to a vote, the CRA allows senators to force a vote if 30 signatures are obtained.

All 49 Democrat senators voted in favour, joined by three Republican senators. The house needs to use the CRA in order to overturn the policy next, which means obtaining signatures from a full majority of house members. The potential full support of all Democrats would still see the need for 22 Republicans to agree in order for this to happen, which many US analysts view as a tall order. The reversal would also need to go through US president Donald Trump, who has expressed his dislike for net neutrality on a number of occasions.

A monumental day

“Today is a monumental day,” said Democratic senator Edward Markey during a debate. “We show the American people who sides with them, and who sides with the powerful special interests and corporate donors who are thriving under this administration.”

While the majority of Democrats are for retaining net neutrality and Republicans lean more towards repealing the rules, the issue is not totally clear-cut across party lines. Meanwhile, general consumer sentiment in the US is also moving against the FCC.

Republicans say the fears about tiered internet access are unfounded and that the FCC is focused on increasing competition and consumer choice. Tech giants such as Google and Facebook have been vocal in their support for the retention of the rules.

Brett Dunst, vice-president of corporate communications at DreamHost, told “Today’s vote to reinstate net neutrality is the first step to preserving a free and open internet for small businesses and internet users everywhere. Net neutrality is essential for ensuring new companies can compete with established ones, so we encourage citizens to contact their representatives in the house to make their voices heard.”

Protesters in Philadelphia advocating for net neutrality. Image: Michael Candelori/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects