Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday defended his decision to kill Obama-era net neutrality rules a day after the Senate voted to nullify the rules change.
“The best approach is the light-touch approach,” Pai said as he faced criticism from Democratic members of the Senate appropriations committee considering the FCC’s budget. They included Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, who said Pai showed contempt for the public by not heeding public opinion that favours stronger net neutrality rules.
“You ignored the overwhelming public support – I mean, I’ve never seen such overwhelming public support – for net neutrality,” Leahy said.
Pai said the measure passed by the FCC last year to revoke net neutrality rules would bring more broadband construction. Providers need to report details of handling web traffic to the FCC, and the agency will enforce that requirement aggressively, Pai said.
“We want a free and open Internet,” Pai said.
On Wednesday Senate Democrats won a vote to preserve the Obama-era net neutrality regulations that Pai gutted. The vote was 52 to 47 with three Republicans joining all the Democrats and independents in favour of a resolution to eliminate Pai’s rule change.
The win could be short-lived though it may appeal to young voters and boost the party in mid-term elections. The measure needs to win a vote in the House where Republicans have a larger majority, and to get a signature from President Donald Trump, who supports the FCC’s action.
Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said Thursday that he has started a petition to force a House vote but it is unclear if he will get the 218 signatures needed.
In eliminating Obama-era rules forbidding Internet service providers from blocking or slowing web traffic, the FCC put in their place requirements that companies disclose how they handle data flows. Enforcement is left to another agency. The change is to take effect June 11.
Open-Internet advocates are challenging the new rule in federal court.
Sen. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who introduced Wednesday’s resolution, said during debate on the Senate floor that the measure would guarantee “no slowing down certain websites, no blocking websites, and no charging you more to exercise your 21st century right to access the Internet.”
Republicans voting for the measure included Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“Restoring the FCC’s net neutrality rules will ensure that the Internet will remain open,” Collins said in an email. Rules could help rural carriers to connect with the rest of the Internet, Collins said. She called for “strong protections that guarantee consumer choice, free markets, and continued growth along with meaningful consumer privacy and data security protections.”
Gigi Sohn, who helped write the Obama-era rule as an FCC aide, said the measure could become law.
“Don’t listen to the naysayers – momentum is on the side of those who favour restoring net neutrality now,” she said in an email. “With Americans united and the 2018 midterm election less than 6 months away, the Joint Resolution has a real chance of passing.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., disagreed. He called Markey’s resolution “cynical” and a “bizarre exercise which we all know isn’t going anywhere.”
The House won’t pass it and Trump would veto it, Thune said.
Net neutrality is an issue that resonates among certain Democratic voters, particularly millennials who might be persuaded to turn out in greater numbers in November’s midterm elections that may determine which party controls the House and Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 margin.
“For millions of motivated and infrequent voters, this is a top issue,” Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, told reporters. “Other than health care and taxes, this is one of the issues that has motivated most grassroots activity.”
Jonathan Spalter, president of USTelecom, a trade group with members including AT&T and Verizon Communications, said the vote sets back the goal of an open Internet.
“Consumers want permanent, comprehensive online protections, not half measures or election-year posturing from our representatives in Congress,” he said in an email.
Broadband companies and some Republicans have pushed for legislation that Democrats argue would weaken the FCC.
The Senate’s action was “largely symbolic” and lawmakers should craft legislation, Brian Dietz, a spokesman for NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, said in an emailed statement. Members of the trade group include the largest U.S. cable provider, Comcast Corp.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in an email that the Senate “took a big step to fix the serious mess the FCC made when it rolled back net neutrality last year.”