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Senate Action on Net Neutrality Could Change the Debate

By Peter Suciu
May 11, 2018 10:26 AM PT
senate vote on net neutrality could be effective political theater

All 49 members of the Senate Democratic caucus have expressed support for a resolution to save Net neutrality, introduced Wednesday by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, under the Congressional Review Act. The CRA is a legislative tool that lets Congress reverse federal regulations via a simple majority vote.

For the resolution to become law, it also would need support from a majority of House members as well as the president's signature.

"Today kicks off the most important week for the Internet that the Senate has ever seen," Markey said.

"By passing my CRA resolution, we restore the rules that ensure Americans aren't subject to higher prices, slower Internet traffic, and even blocked websites because the big Internet service providers want to bloat their profits," he added. "This upcoming Senate vote will be our opportunity to save Net neutrality and deliver the digital future that Americans deserve."

The Federal Communications Commission voted late last year to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order, which prohibited Internet service providers from blocking or even slowing down online traffic. Supporters of Net neutrality have argued that the repeal could lead to higher prices as well as slower Internet traffic, and even blockage of some websites.

Full-On Red Alert

Several top-visited websites -- including Etsy, GitHub, Mozilla, Reddit, Pornhub and Tumblr -- on Wednesday announced their support for the Red Alert for Net Neutrality project, an effort organized by activist groups including Demand Progress, Free Press Action Fund and Fight for the Future.

Red Alert is similar to past efforts to support Net neutrality, but so far has been far lower key than last year's Net neutrality day of action. That effort was supported by major tech giants including Amazon, Facebook and Google.

The campaign is a way to drum up public support -- and with it, the potential to garner legislative support from across the aisle.

The U.S. Senate is just the first hurdle to clear to keep Net neutrality in place.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has co-sponsored the measure, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, has pledged his support.

"Markey's effort could well succeed in the Senate if CRA advocates take advantage of Senator McCain's medical absence," said Jessica Melugin, associate director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"In any case, this CRA is most likely DOA in the House," she told the E-Commerce Times, and it's hard to see President Trump signing the reversal of an effort he supported and undercutting the efforts of an FCC Chairman he put in place."

If Trump should veto it, the two-thirds of Senate votes needed for an override likely would be unattainable.

Given all that, there really isn't much hope for Markey's resolution to become law.

"It's a nice piece of political theater in the U.S. Senate -- and theater is an important part of our political process -- but even if it passes, it'll die in the House of Representatives," said Stephen Blum, principal analyst at Tellus Venture Associates.

Still, even as political theater it could have lingering effects.

"It will raise public awareness and heat up the discussion, but won't have a direct effect on Net neutrality regulations," Blum told the E-Commerce Times.

"The main event will be at the D.C. federal appeals court, where Net neutrality advocates will try to get the court to put the FCC's order on hold while appeals are pending," he added. "It's still a long shot, but it's the best shot they have before June 11."

Net Loss

The lingering question is what exactly will the Internet look like come June 11?

"Assuming it's not put on hold, when the FCC's order takes effect the big ISPs will start to move toward paid prioritization -- in other words, selling fast lanes to online service companies -- 'edge providers,' as they're called," said Blum.

"Blocking and throttling probably won't happen, because it's not necessary if someone pays for a fast lane," he added.

"Consumers should look for the return of fast lanes -- and of course, slow lanes -- which will cost many companies, but will also ultimately cost consumers and restrict the free flow of information across the internet," said Michael Fauscette, chief research officer at G2 Crowd.

Net Gain

The winners -- should Net neutrality be overturned -- could be the big ISPs such as Comcast, Charter, AT&T and Verizon, said Blum.

Add to the list the big established Web platforms such as Netflix -- and even supporters of Net neutrality such as Google and Facebook could be seen in the winner's column.

"They can bear the cost of paid prioritization," said Blum.

New, innovative and competitive companies could find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

"The Internet will no longer be an even playing field where small companies can successfully challenge the big ones," Blum said.

"Back in the day, that's how two small startups, Google and Facebook, took on the market leaders, Yahoo and MySpace, and won," he noted. "Paid prioritization puts market controlling power back in the hands of a relative few companies. It'll be a return to the managed content business of the 1980s and 1990s."

Not So Fast

However, keeping Net neutrality in place could come at a cost for many.

"Large, established content providers would like to see the Net neutrality regulations banning paid prioritization put back in place, as they would prefer to keep end users as the ISPs only source of revenue," said CEI's Melugin.

"If the regulations are brought back, broadband providers will suffer from fewer options in experimenting with different business arrangements with end users and content providers," she pointed out.

"This could impact the profitability of investment in broadband deployment and may lessen the incentive for them to expand and innovate," Melugin suggested. "Consumers, especially those in underserved areas, stand to lose if the regulations are reinstated, as that could deter investment in increased broadband capacity and new service areas."

Political Ramifications

This move may turn out to be far more than theater in the political sense.

"The Democrats are making Net neutrality a signature issue in this year's campaigns, which elevates it out of the geek realm," said Blum.

That could change the dynamic in terms of how companies support or oppose Net neutrality, suggested Blum, as it will be "much harder for lobbyists for AT&T, Comcast and Charter to kill the Net neutrality revival legislation pending in California."


Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com. Email Peter.


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