It’s a well-worn cliché in Washington that a gaffe is nothing more than a politician accidentally telling the truth. Case in point: when Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), leader of the so-called “net neutrality” warriors on Capitol Hill, flatly admitted last week that he’s against any bill that might actually result in permanent net neutrality protections. Points for honesty, or something.
Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) and tech companies shouldn’t be able interfere with anybody’s internet experience by discriminating against content. So, ISPs shouldn’t be able to block customers’ access to competing video offerings like Netflix, and Google shouldn’t be able to unfairly prioritize its own subsidiaries in search results over competitors’ services. Not surprisingly, these principles enjoy broad public support across party lines.
Despite this broad public support, Congress has continually fumbled in enshrining these common-sense principles into law. In the absence of any statutory guidance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has spent the past 15 years struggling to fill the gap. Numerous efforts to implement open internet protections at the FCC, under both parties’ leadership, have been struck down by the courts precisely because the FCC lacked proper Congressional authority.
In 2015, the Obama administration decided to take a regulatory sledgehammer to the longstanding, bipartisan approach to internet regulation. Instead of working collaboratively with Congress to finally pass a net neutrality law, the White House pressured Obama’s handpicked FCC Chairman (Tom Wheeler) to declare the entire internet to be a “public utility.” This classification allowed the FCC to micromanage the internet under laws written in 1934 for the Ma Bell telephone monopoly. Predictably, investment in broadband networks immediately slackened, and small broadband providers in rural areas complained the heavy-handed utility rules were preventing them from expanding or upgrading their infrastructure.
When the now-Republican led FCC voted in December to reverse the Obama-era decision, conservatives rejoiced. But the progressive left lost its collective mind, casting the vote (which restored the internet to the same light-touch framework under which it flourished before 2015) as a nefarious plot to “destroy the internet.” As a new video by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance shows, rumors of the death of the internet have been greatly exaggerated.
Frightened by this apocalyptic rhetoric, millions of Americans have taken to social media to voice concern over the December vote. And, Democrats on Capitol Hill clearly sense an opportunity to not actually fix the problem, but rather to exploit these fears for political gain. Even mild-mannered moderates have lately adopted the overheated talking points in their fundraising emails and list-building petitions, seeing a golden opportunity to cash in on activists’ fears ahead of the midterm elections looming in November.
If Democrats were sincerely interested in protecting the open internet, they’d be coming together to support what has always been the only long-term answer: bipartisan net neutrality legislation.
There is already broad support for a bill that permanently outlaws blocking, throttling, and unfair prioritization online – as long as it keeps the internet under a light-touch framework far removed from ill-fitting utility rules. Cynics often blame the lobbying might of the “Big ISPs” as the bogeyman blocking action on a net neutrality bill. The truth is that the major providers have been lobbying hard in support of such a bill, eager to finally end the constant regulatory uncertainty.
Instead, it’s Sen. Markey who took to Twitter to pour gallons of cold water on the idea of permanently solving the net neutrality debate. “Campaigns for *legislation* are not genuine attempts to save #NetNeutrality,” he tweeted, adding: “To #SaveTheInternet, we must pass my CRA.”
Markey’s tweet alludes to the Congressional Review Act (CRA) – a partisan tactic that Senate Democrats have unanimously embraced as their alternative to real legislation. Under the CRA, the FCC’s recent vote can be overturned if majorities in both houses of Congress vote for a disapproval resolution and the president signs it.
With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, the chances of a CRA successfully passing and re-imposing Obama-era utility rules are slim to none.
But that doesn’t seem to be a problem to Democrats, because the CRA is not a sincere effort to protect the internet. Instead, it’s a strategy to perpetuate an impasse while they milk the issue to raise money, build their social media databases, and campaign in the upcoming mid-terms. Its political grandstanding at its worst – party before principle that exposes the Democrats not as defenders of the open internet, but as partisan hacks exploiting the issue by keeping it unresolved while consumers pay the price.
Republicans can and should expose this cynical strategy and Democrats’ bluff. They should introduce simple legislation that bans all players – both internet providers and the more powerful Big Tech giants – from manipulating the internet experience for their narrow gain. And then let the charlatans twist themselves into rhetorical pretzels explaining why they want a temporary, inadequate CRA rather than a permanent legislative fix that protects consumers.
Now that will be something to tweet about.
David Williams is president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.