Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress find themselves at war once again over net neutrality, blaming each other for failing to adopt lasting rules that safeguard the open internet — and put to rest a debate that’s more than a decade in the making.
The spark came Wednesday in the form of a massive online rally, as tech giants like Google and Twitter joined liberal activists in an attempt to pressure the Federal Communications Commission into preserving rules that require the likes of AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon to treat all web traffic equally.
The FCC’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, says he supports net neutrality — but he believes the specific open internet protections currently on the government’s books are too heavy-handed. In the minds of Democrats, though, Pai’s attempt to undo those safeguards — implemented under former President Barack Obama — are tantamount to suffocating the web.
“Without net neutrality, the internet as we know it ends,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, speaking alongside other Democratic lawmakers outside the U.S. Capitol this afternoon. “It’s just that simple.”
Pai’s Republican supporters in Congress, meanwhile, stressed Wednesday the onus is on their opponents: Democrats should “come to the table and work with us on bipartisan legislation that preserves an open internet while not discouraging the investments necessary to fully connect all Americans,” said Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who leads the tech-focused House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Too much is at stake to have this issue ping-pong between different FCC commissions and various courts over the next decade,” he added in a statement.
For roughly 15 years, the U.S. government has struggled with this issue — how to require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally while surviving a court challenge from the regulation-wary telecom industry. In 2015, the Obama-era FCC thought it finally had found an answer: A set of rules that subjected internet providers to some of the same heavy regulations that apply to old-school telephone companies.
As expected, AT&T, Verizon and others immediately challenged the FCC’s efforts in court. The agency ultimately prevailed. But the FCC’s approach encountered an unexpected political obstacle in January, after Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election. Upon Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House, Republicans took over the nation’s telecom agency. And Pai, soon tapped as the FCC’s new GOP chairman, set his sights on deregulating the cable, wireless and broadcasting industries — with net neutrality as one of his early targets.
Pai’s plans for repeal have immense support among Republicans in Congress, not to mention broad swaths of the telecom industry. The outcome of his efforts is hardly in doubt: He easily has the votes to scrap the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules.
Still, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pledged a brutal public-relations war beginning Wednesday, hoping that they could sway Pai — or, at the very least, cause enough pain for Republicans in Congress that they come to the negotiating table in pursuit of a new law.
“Political change doesn’t start in Washington, D.C., and then trickle down,” said Wyden, flanked by fellow Democrats during a press conference outside the halls of Congress. “It’s bottom up. And today, we begin the next big battle.”
Some of his allies, like Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle, stressed that Democrats had been “fighting to protect and promote a free and open internet for a long time” — and did not plan to stop.
“Now, the Trump administration and the ISPs want to take that away,” he charged. “I challenge my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to go back to their districts and ask their constituents if they want slower internet.”
There also emerged early signs Wednesday that many of the Democratic Party’s national leaders hoped to seize on this wonky fight over net neutrality — framed as a referendum on the future of the internet — as a new political attack line against Republicans.
The Democratic National Committee, for example, blasted out a statement supporting strong protections for the open internet. And some of the party’s potential front-runners in the seemingly distant 2020 presidential election, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, joined a chorus of Democrats signaling their support for net neutrality on Twitter.
In one respect, at least, Democrats and Republicans are aligned: Both sides of the debate publicly acknowledge that Congress, not the FCC, is perhaps best equipped to issue net neutrality rules, so that the government’s approach to internet policy doesn’t change depending on which party is in power at any given time.
Among other net neutrality supporters in Silicon Valley -- and some of its critics in the telecom sector — there’s similar reticence to continue battling over the issue in the federal courts. To that end, AT&T and Verizon, which have challenged Democrats’ net neutrality rules in the past, also issued statements Wednesday calling on Congress to act. So did the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
For all the clamor, though, none of the Democrats or Republicans speaking out on the so-called net neutrality “day of action” offered much of a plan. After months of posturing, they have no bill with bipartisan support. Democrats sketched out no contours of a bill during the press conference. There isn’t even a hearing on the books to discuss legislation.
In the House, a spokeswoman for Walden, a top GOP leader, repeated the onus is on Democrats to “come to the table and work with us on a solution.” In the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. John Thune, who leads the chamber’s Commerce Committee, stressed in a piece published by Recode that a new net neutrality law is “obvious and — no, I’m not kidding — within Congress’s reach.” His office didn’t offer any specifics, either.
Absent the stuff of legislation, lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal are revving up for a long fight — focusing their efforts on rallying angry internet users and directing their rage at Republicans at the controls in the nation’s capital.
“We know Donald Trump loves walls,” the Connecticut lawmaker joked, “but he cannot put walls around the internet — neither can Pai, as chairman of the FCC.”
* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.