Congress has fewer than 60 work days to save the internet as we know it.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to end net neutrality, a series of rules requiring internet service providers to treat all data equally. The rules, which prevented telecom companies from throttling access to certain content or charging more for certain services, officially expired April 23. But Congress can still restore the rules if it acts fast.
Net neutrality’s last hope is an action under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to override a new federal regulation within its first 60 legislative days. The sprint to save the rules is expected to begin Wednesday, when Senate Democrats have made plans to file a petition forcing a vote on a bill that could overturn the FCC’s decision.
As of Monday, the Senate bill was one vote shy of victory.
“This Senate vote will be the most important vote for net neutrality and the open internet since the FCC repeal, and really since the 2016 election,” Evan Greer, deputy director for pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future, told The Daily Beast. “The outcome of this vote will define the battlefield that we’re fighting on for what the future of the internet is going to look like, not just in the short term but for years to come.”
Fight for the Future is among a coalition of activist groups and internet companies launching a public awareness campaign this week, urging Americans to ask their senators to support the bill.
Net neutrality has broad support among the American public. In a December poll ahead of the FCC vote, 83 percent of respondents said they wanted to keep the Obama-era net protections. More than 75 percent of Republicans polled said they supported net neutrality. But that support hasn’t found its way to Capitol Hill. Although every Democrat senator has said he or she will support the bill to restore net neutrality rules, only one Republican—Maine’s Susan Collins—has signed on.
With Collins’ support, the bill has 50 Senate votes in its favor, setting it up for a deadlock unless Sen. John McCain misses the vote due to ongoing health issues or Democrats win over one more Republican. Democrats are reportedly pushing Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) to vote in favor of the bill.
Kennedy, who has publicly considered a vote for the bill, has previously made noises about protecting net neutrality and in March introduced a bill of his own purporting to protect the rules. But the bill, which would have done little besides prohibiting companies from a few egregious behaviors like blocking websites, was so telecoms-friendly that internet activists called it a “Trojan horse” for net neutrality’s repeal.
If Kennedy refuses to flip, some of his colleagues might take up the Democrats’ cause.
“Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska has been under tremendous pressure from small business owners in her state to support it, as has Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado,” Greer said. “I think there are a number of others that are considered possible. But the reality is that, outside D.C., this is not a partisan issue.”
Democrats won’t have much time to campaign for the bill. Six of the 60 days to repeal the bill have already passed. And even after Democrats file their Wednesday motion to force a vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be responsible for scheduling the vote, a process that could seriously stall the bill’s momentum, The Verge reports.
If the bill clears the Senate, its real challenge will come in the House, where Republicans hold a more significant majority. And even if House Democrats manage to sway 25 of their colleagues across the aisle before the 60-day deadline, President Donald Trump could veto the bipartisan bill.
If Trump vetoes, or the 60 days pass before the bill does, the FCC’s net neutrality decision is here to stay. But that doesn’t mean the fight is over on the local level. Lawmakers in Washington state and Oregon passed laws earlier this year writing some of the FCC’s old net neutrality protections into state law. Legislators in New York and California are going further, pushing identical bills that would bring back the old protections, plus new rules against data fees.
But the state-by-state process will be patchwork and take longer than a simple congressional vote to override the FCC. That’s why activists like Greer are campaigning ahead of the Senate vote, where one senator could deliver a major win for internet advocates.
“This is a moment to use the internet and its ability to reach millions of people, give those people the ability to contact their lawmakers on an unprecedented scale, and frankly melt some phones in Washington, D.C.,” she said.