In a big win for Democrats and digital rights advocates, the Senate approved a resolution on Wednesday that would restore popular net neutrality rules for internet service providers at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by a vote of 52 to 47.
Democrats see net neutrality as a potent wedge issue ahead of the midterm elections and were united behind the resolution, which would reverse the FCC's December order repealing its own net neutrality rules. Republicans, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, defected from the GOP to give Democrats the votes needed to pass the resolution with a simple majority.
The FCC's net neutrality rules, which are scheduled to be replaced by much weaker requirements on June 11, prevent internet service providers like AT&T and Comcast from blocking, slowing or prioritizing web content. For Democrats, passing the resolution is a rare legislative victory in a Congress that is controlled by the GOP and has embraced the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda.
"Only in Washington is this controversial, largely due to the influence of high-paid lobbyists for big cable and telecommunications companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T," said Chris Lewis, vice president of the digital rights group Public Knowledge, in a statement.
The resolution faces an uphill battle in the House, where the GOP holds a powerful majority. However, pressuring lawmakers to take up the resolution could force vulnerable Republican incumbents to either buck the deregulatory party line or take an unpopular position with the midterms looming.
Since taking over Congress and the White House, Republicans have quietly worked to dismantle net neutrality and other Obama-era telecom regulations, but recent polling shows that a clear majority of voters -- including a majority of Republicans -- want strong net neutrality protection and oppose the FCC repeal.
"House Republican don't have to choose the same path that the vast majority of Republicans in the Senate chose," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer during a press conference after the vote. "Speaker Ryan should bring this resolution up for a vote immediately because it's too much of an important issue to shelve."
If their resolution fails in the House, Democrats hope internet users will punish the GOP in the midterms for siding with the telecom industry over consumers. Democrats are also using net neutrality to brand themselves as tech-savvy and pro-consumer on an issue that appeals to younger voters.
Speaking before the Senate ahead of the vote, resolution sponsor Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said the only supporters of the FCC decision to kill net neutrality are the telecom lobbyists and their friends in the GOP.
"The public is telling us loud and clear to vote for this resolution," Markey said. "They are telling us that they don't trust their internet service providers to show up on time for a customer service appointment at their house, so they certainly don't trust them to put consumers ahead of profits."
More than 20 states have sued the FCC over the repeal, which digital rights advocates fear could empower internet service providers to maximize profits by shaping what content consumers see and how quickly they can access certain websites.
Internet service providers have long opposed the original FCC net neutrality rules because they classified the internet as a "common carrier" service that everyone needs to use, which gives the FCC greater power to regulate providers on behalf of consumers. Big providers have also pledged not to violate net neutrality if left unregulated, but digital rights advocates say consumers should not trust them.