Net Neutrality Has Always Been a Bipartisan Issue

Weekly Article
Sept. 6, 2018

In the courts and in Congress, the commotion around the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) decision to roll back net neutrality regulations is kicking into gear once again: The parties challenging this outcome (full disclosure: my employer, OTI, is one of them) filed their opening briefs on Aug. 20 in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But if you zoom out from this in-the-weeds policy maneuvering, you’ll notice something bigger: that Congressional and state actions to preserve strong net neutrality protections have bipartisan support—while the FCC’s repeal had bipartisan opposition. For instance, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), in February, became the first House Republican to support undoing the repeal of the net neutrality rules. He joins three Republicans in the Senate who voted for the same measure: Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Kennedy (R-La.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Put another way, net neutrality is, and has always been, a bipartisan issue, and more Republicans, in particular, should follow suit. Here’s why.

Net Neutrality Efforts Have Spanned Multiple Administrations and Political Parties

Until recently, enforceable net neutrality rules had long had bipartisan support. In fact, net neutrality was originally a Republican proposal. In 2005, the FCC, headed by Republican Chairman Michael Powell, attempted to impose net neutrality on internet service providers (ISPs) by adopting an informal policy statement outlining four specific net neutrality principles. In 2008, Powell’s successor, Republican Chairman Kevin Martin, voted to declare Comcast’s blocking and throttling of BitTorrent traffic illegal under those principles.

After the FCC took action against Comcast, in 2010, the company challenged that ruling in court. The court overturned the Commission’s order because the FCC lacked Congressional authority to impose those principles on ISPs. Back at the drawing board, the Commission took a new tack. This time it used other sources of statutory authority and imposed stronger rules to prevent blocking and unreasonable discrimination against online content. ISPs again challenged those rules, in 2014 prevailing once more over the Commission, even with its new Congressional authority arguments.

After being overturned twice, the Commission in 2015 took the next logical step: It passed its strongest net neutrality rules and firmly grounded those rules in authority from the common carrier provisions of the Communications Act. This shift in classification provided the Commission with the statutory authority necessary to enact strong net neutrality rules, the entirety of which the D.C. Circuit upheld.

For 13 years, Commission chairmen—from both parties—worked to protect net neutrality. That bipartisan support changed in 2017, however, when Republican Chairman Ajit Pai voted to repeal the 2015 rules. Pai’s repeal was a stark departure from prior Commissions that sought to protect consumers with strong rules. Instead, the Commission merely imposed weak transparency requirements nearly identical to what the courts upheld in 2014.

Members of Congress from Both Sides of the Aisle Have Pushed Back on Pai’s Ill-Advised Repeal

The congressional backlash to Pai’s repeal of the net neutrality rules has also been bipartisan. In December, dozens of Democrats spoke out against the repeal, and they were joined by many Republicans, including Rep. Coffman, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), and Rep. John Curtis (R-Iowa), and Sen. Collins.

Then, in May, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution seeking to overturn the repeal. Three Republican Senators voted for that resolution: Sen. Collins, Sen. Murkowski, and Sen. Kennedy. The House has until the end of the year to vote on its version of the same resolution, but Rep. Coffman has already become the first House Republican to sign on.

More House Republicans should follow his lead and support that resolution.

In today’s age of hyper-partisanship, such bipartisan reactions and votes are significant and historic. Congress has accomplished little in 2018, but the Senate passing its resolution on the net neutrality repeal, with momentum gaining in the House for a corresponding outcome, is a major victory for Americans who now have some hope of regaining strong net neutrality protections.

There’s Also Been Bipartisan Movement on the State Level

In addition, bipartisan state legislators have responded negatively to Pai’s repeal order, with several states having passed bipartisan net neutrality legislation. For instance, California’s SB822 recently passed the Assembly, with six Republicans voting in favor of the strongest net neutrality bill in the nation. Washington’s bill was sponsored by five Republicans; all but five House Republicans voted in favor, and nine Senate Republicans voted in favor. Oregon’s bill, meanwhile, counted six House Republicans and four Senate Republicans voting in favor. Other states have introduced (but have not passed) legislation with bipartisan support, including Alaska, Delaware, and Kansas.

Vermont, which has a Republican governor, has also been a leader on net neutrality. After the repeal, the governor signed an Executive Order requiring net neutrality protections for ISPs that contract with the executive branch. Then, the Vermont House introduced H. 680, which was the strongest state bill in the nation until the California bill, SB 822. While H. 680 didn’t pass as written, a narrower bill subsequently passed on a bipartisan basis.

These examples are an important illustration of the long history of bipartisanship surrounding the issue of net neutrality. Indeed, the mass appeal of net neutrality is something many members of Congress, state representatives, and the American public already know. In addition, the significant bipartisan support for net neutrality in Washington, D.C., reflects overwhelming bipartisan support among the American people for the strong net neutrality protections Pai rescinded. (For instance, a poll released in July showed that in four key Congressional districts, 60 percent of voters are more likely to vote for a candidate that forced a vote for the net neutrality resolution than for a candidate who failed to force the vote.) Looking ahead, more Republicans ought to follow the examples of Sen. Collins, Rep. Coffman, and others in heeding the will of their constituents. If Congress takes no action, it’s likely that more states will pick up the slack and take on the fight next year.