The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Net neutrality is back in play as Democratic lawmakers announce a bill. Here’s what to expect.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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House and Senate Democratic leaders unveiled new legislation Wednesday proposing to restore federal net neutrality rules on Internet providers such as AT&T and Verizon, in their latest attempt to countermand the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s in the bill?

The text of the bill is available here. As written, the draft legislation would reverse the FCC’s 2017 vote to repeal its net neutrality rules, and restore the 2015 regulations approved during the Obama era.

In their announcement of a news conference Wednesday, Democratic leaders are positioning the legislation as an answer to the “disastrous repeal” of the government’s 2015 net neutrality rules.

“Republicans will have a second chance — there are second chances! — to right the Trump administration’s wrong,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D).

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said the bill would ensure that entrepreneurs will have a level playing field on the Internet.

“With the Save the Internet Act, Democrats are honoring the will of the people,” she said.

The FCC responded Wednesday by defending its repeal of the net neutrality rules, saying it has “proven wrong the many hysterical predictions of doom from 2017, most notably the fantasy that market-based regulation would bring about ‘the end of the Internet as we know it.’”

Didn’t Democrats already try this recently? What’s different this time?

For much of the past year, Democrats’ legislative strategy revolved around the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to simply overrule the actions of a federal agency within a certain window of time. But although the resolution to restore the net neutrality rules passed the Senate, House lawmakers ran out of time.

Lawmakers seeking a net neutrality bill this time around have to do so within the conventional legislative process.

What are the bill’s prospects?

Democrats control the House. But with Republicans in control of the Senate, the legislation could be dead-on-arrival there unless the two parties agree to negotiate a compromise. Even then, it’s unclear whether the resulting bill could pass both chambers — or be signed by President Trump.

What are the key issues at stake?

For years, opponents of the 2015 net neutrality rules — including now-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — have argued they impose unreasonable burdens on Internet providers. Not only were there costs to complying with the regulations, critics say, but the way they were written left the door open to direct price regulation of Internet access. The threat of that rate regulation, according to opponents, deterred ISPs from investing in their networks and making them faster or better.

Proponents argue the net neutrality rules were a vital consumer protection — that without them, Internet providers could freely manipulate what Internet users are allowed to see and which sites and services they may access. This could conceivably end up stifling innovation and strangling small start-ups that can’t afford to negotiate deals for special treatment with companies like Comcast or Cox.

Is there room for a compromise?

A number of GOP lawmakers have floated their own net neutrality bills in recent weeks. Legislation is on the table from Reps. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio), Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.). The Democrats’ planned introduction of their own bill on Wednesday shows there’s bipartisan appetite for a legislative solution, rather than to keep having various FCCs flip back and forth between policies with every change in administration.

But supporters of the FCC rules have slammed the Republican bills as little more than a fig leaf. While the GOP proposals give the FCC clearer authority to enforce net neutrality’s core principles — that ISPs may not block, slow down or speed up websites and services — they also largely prohibit the FCC from enacting further regulations on the broadband industry. Advocates of the 2015 net neutrality rules say that defeats the point, as Internet providers could seek new ways around the net neutrality rules that the FCC would then be powerless to stop.

Where could this lead?

Despite the apparent standoff between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, some have suggested that it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition — that Congress could outline, in an entirely new chapter of the law, exactly what the FCC’s powers should be for the Internet age.

In principle, this hypothetical new part of the FCC’s charter could address net neutrality and its authority to write future rules for Internet providers, while forbidding the FCC from directly regulating the price of Internet service.

Even as this legislative story unfolds, don’t forget that there’s a federal-court case pending that could decide whether the FCC’s 2017 vote to repeal the net neutrality rules is upheld.