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Democrats want to turn net neutrality into the next GOP health-care debacle

The FCC voted May 18 to begin undoing Obama-era Internet regulations that disallowed Internet providers from favoring or blocking websites. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Now that federal regulators have released their official proposal to repeal the government's net neutrality rules, Democrats are vowing, Churchill-style, to fight that measure in the courts, at the Federal Communications Commission and in the realm of public opinion. Sensing they've hit on a white-hot campaign issue, liberals are seeking to stir up a grass-roots firestorm around net neutrality that can thwart the GOP plan — or at least make it incredibly costly for Republicans to support.

Democrats argue that conservatives want to strip consumers of key online protections and hand more power back to large Internet providers, and liken the issue to another hot-button topic: former president Obama's health-care law.

“The more the public understands about what the Trump administration is trying to do to net neutrality, they'll understand that it's the same thing they're trying to do to the Affordable Care Act, to the Clean Air Act, to gun safety laws — and net neutrality is just another part of the very same story,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

The Republican-led FCC has proposed to roll back landmark regulations for Internet providers. The rules were passed in 2015 to protect consumers, making it illegal for Internet providers to block, slow or charge websites extra fees. The industry has opposed the regulations — arguing that the rules prevent them from finding new ways of making money, and from upgrading their networks to give consumers better speeds and more reliable service.

As a right-wing effort to repeal the net neutrality rules has ramped up, liberals are now pulling from the same playbook they used to oppose the House GOP's widely unpopular health-care bill, the American Health Care Act. Although Republicans ultimately pushed that legislation through the House, Democrats sought to turn every yes-vote into an act of political suicide. Liberals were so confident the bill would doom Republicans in 2018, they even chanted “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye” as the legislation won enough votes to pass. Sure enough, some lawmakers have gone home to face hostile town hall meetings with constituents outraged over the AHCA.

By raising the issue of net neutrality to the level of health care, Democrats such as Markey appear to believe they're in for similar victories on net neutrality. The decision reflects a doubling-down on liberals' populist strategy — and it reflects how deeply they are convinced the public is already on their side.

“I just don’t think [Republicans] understand the ferocity of the resistance that they’re about to encounter,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told reporters earlier this month. A few dozen demonstrators outside the FCC last week also seemed to gesture at that approach — blasting classic rock, carrying banners and blocking visitors from entering the building by creating a “slow zone” that they said was analogous to the future Internet providers wanted to build. The protest got the Democratic seal of approval when Markey and Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), an outspoken critic of digital surveillance, clambered out of black SUVs to join in.

Democrats also have called on voters to submit feedback to the FCC, whose net neutrality docket is swelling with roughly 2.7 million public comments. And many grass-roots activist groups are involved in the effort, including Fight for the Future, Free Press and the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

It's not entirely clear how effectively Democrats' mass mobilization tactics on health care can translate to net neutrality. While many Americans intuitively grasp the significance of health insurance as a pocketbook issue, telecommunications policy is a little further removed from the average person's experience. And, some analysts say, the FCC docket is not a pure numbers game: Even if more people file in favor of the agency's existing regulations, the FCC is still free to push forward with its plan.

“Pai has a determined deregulatory philosophy which is supported by a good number of Americans who may not be as active on this issue” as the Democratic-leaning supporters, said Adonis Hoffman, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a former FCC staffer, in reference to Ajit Pai, head of the FCC. “I suspect Pai will seek to balance the comments from the opponents with those views, and point to trends that say people want less government.”

The FCC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another issue with the Democrats' strategy, analysts say, is that unlike the fight over health care, the center of gravity for net neutrality lies with the FCC — not with Congress — where vulnerable GOP members could be bombarded by constituents. And while the left's pressure campaign could affect lawmakers more directly if Congress tried to write a bill solving the net neutrality standoff, the odds of that occurring have diminished in recent months.

Part of that stems from Democrats' own shift in approach. For much of 2015 and 2016, senior Democrats were publicly saying they were open to crafting a net neutrality bill, so long as it contained enough of the right consumer protections.

But the mood began to turn after President Trump took office. In late March, the Republican-led Congress sent to Trump's desk a piece of legislation that would repeal the FCC's privacy regulations, which sought to protect consumers by limiting ISPs' ability to mine and sell customer data. Democratic aides said then that the GOP measure would ruin any chances of getting liberal cooperation on a net neutrality bill. And soon enough, the FCC announced its plans to reverse the net neutrality rules — hardening the battle lines. In a May Senate hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), citing the entrenched politics, said “the climate just isn't ripe” for a bipartisan bill.

The Democrats' willingness to make a deal is almost entirely gone now — replaced by a belief that, in the end, only an open confrontation with Republicans will vindicate them.

“I don't know what there is to negotiate,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), whose district is home to companies such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo.

Some analysts still say that a legislative compromise on net neutrality is the only thing that will keep the issue from yo-yoing every time the White House changes hands.

“This is what Dems need to realize: If they don't reach a compromise that involves some level of protection for websites, then we will forever toggle between zero protection under a GOP-led FCC, and maximal protection under a Democratic-led FCC,” said Hal Singer, an economist at George Washington University's Institute for Public Policy. “This back and forth is not good for websites, and it's not good for ISPs.”

Despite the long odds of a legislative compromise, top Republicans say they're still open to a deal.

“Even amid charged rhetoric from both sides,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Commerce Committee, “I remain optimistic that there can still be a bipartisan congressional effort to pass open Internet protections.”