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The Senate just voted to uphold net neutrality rules – here’s what happens next

Published May 16th, 2018 4:04PM EDT
Net Neutrality vote, CRA explainer, what happens next
Image: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/REX/Shutterstock

With the support of three Republican senators and all the Democrats, the Senate just voted in favor of a bill that would reverse last year’s contentious decision by the Federal Communications Commission to undo the 2015 net neutrality rules. Obviously, this is a momentous vote and shows that the majority of Senate lawmakers aren’t in favor of the decision FCC chairman Ajit Pai ramrodded through last year.

But before you go screaming to the hills about how the internet has been saved or it’s a “win” for everyday citizens, it’s time for a small reality check. The Senate passing this bill doesn’t mean anything. It will also have to be passed by the House, where Republicans have a more significant majority, and then be signed into law by the President. Without both of those, this is a nice PR stunt for a couple Republicans and not much else.

The bill uses Congress’s powers under the Congressional Review Act, a little-known piece of legislation that up to now, had almost exclusively been used by Republicans to overturn federal rules put in place by the Obama administration. Under the terms of the CRA, a vote on a newly-adopted federal agency rule can be brought through a petition of 30 Senators. Once that petition is submitted, any member may bring it to a vote on the floor, with only a simple majority needed to pass, and a limit of 10 hours of debate — making it filibuster-proof. If the bill passes both houses and is signed into law by the President, the relevant federal rule is reversed, which in this case would mean reverting to the 2015 net neutrality rules.

Three Republican senators, Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and John Kennedy (R-LA), voted in favor of the bill, which passed 52-47. “We don’t let water companies or phone companies discriminate against customers, we don’t restrict access to freeways deciding you can use them and you can’t,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said before the vote. “Are you on the side of large internet companies, or are you on the side of American families? That’s what this debate is about.”

In the House of Representatives, Democrats need 25 Republicans to flip in order to pass the bill. That’s not impossible — net neutrality has broad support from voters in both parties — but even then, the chances of the bill making it through the White House are slim. Trump has tweeted against net neutrality before, but more importantly, has shown an almost feverish ambition to undo every Obama-era regulation.

Even if the bill does make it all the way through against the odds, the 2015 net neutrality rules rely on an active FCC to investigate possible breaches, something that it’s highly unlikely to do under Pai. The best prospect for true net neutrality remains a bill specifically addressing the issue from Congress. However, the CRA bill would serve as an effective stop-gap that could limit any potential damage while a bill is being drawn up, if that ever happens.

Nonetheless, net neutrality advocates are delighted at today’s vote. In a statement, digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future said “This is a historic victory for the free and open Internet, and a major step forward for the future of free expression and democracy. But we’re just getting started.” Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS and a former Republican Congressman from Mississippi, said “This is a win for young Americans who want to start a business and consumers who have cut the cord and love the streaming revolution. Net neutrality has wide support from over 80 percent of Americans, including conservatives and Trump supporters. No one wants a cable gatekeeper controlling the internet and main street businesses in rural America are growing louder in their calls to keep the internet open and free.”