Net neutrality is back in play: Democratic lawmakers announce a bill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, alongside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (second from left), announces net neutrality legislation at the Capitol on March 6.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)
Washington Post

House and Senate Democratic leaders unveiled new legislation Wednesday proposing to restore federal net neutrality rules on internet service providers such as AT&T and Verizon. It’s their latest attempt to countermand the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s in the bill?

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 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 Schumer (D-N.Y.).


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the bill would ensure entrepreneurs had 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 — and, if it did, whether President Trump would sign it.

What are the key issues at stake?

For years, opponents of the 2015 net neutrality rules — including Ajit Pai, now chairman of the FCC — have argued they impose unreasonable burdens on internet service providers. Critics say that not only were there costs to complying with the regulations, but also 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 internet service providers from investing in their networks and making them faster or better.


Proponents argued the net neutrality rules were a vital consumer protection — that without them, internet service 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 internet service providers.

Is there room for a compromise?

A number of Republican lawmakers have floated their own net neutrality bills in recent weeks. Legislation is on the table from Reps. Robert Latta (R-Ohio), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

The Democrats’ move on Wednesday shows there is bipartisan appetite for a legislative solution, rather than a desire to keep letting the FCC flip back and forth between policies with every change in administration.

But supporters of the 2015 net neutrality rules have said the Republican bills are little more than a fig leaf. Although the GOP proposals largely would give the FCC clear authority to enforce net neutrality’s core principles — that internet service providers may not block, slow down or speed up websites and services — they also would largely prohibit the FCC from enacting further regulations on the broadband industry. Advocates of the 2015 rules say that defeats the point, as internet service 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 service providers, while forbidding the FCC to directly regulate the price of internet service.


Meanwhile, even as this legislative story unfolds, there’s a federal court case pending that could decide whether the FCC’s 2017 vote to repeal the net neutrality rules is upheld.