Republicans are escalating their fight over the future of the internet, triggering a battle that Democrats plan to take into the 2018 election.
Congressional Republicans drew blood this week by voting to repeal the FCC’s Obama-era broadband privacy rules. The GOP’s next target is likely to be the Obama administration’s top technology legacy: net neutrality rules that essentially require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally, a policy championed by Silicon Valley.
Even in a Capitol often dominated by fights over defense or health care, the GOP’s technology offensive has handed a potential political weapon to Democrats and consumer groups, who are eager to use it. Democrats followed Tuesday’s privacy vote by launching broadsides against Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), supporters of the privacy repeal who face reelection in 2018 — denouncing the GOP work as “creepy” and “indefensible.”
“Voters across party lines understand the importance of personal privacy and are not going to be happy as they find out that Republican senators and Senate candidates used a party-line vote to put data including health and financial information for sale to the highest bidder,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for the DSCC.
The stakes are only going to rise, as Republicans in Congress and at President Donald Trump’s FCC turn their sights to the Obama-era net neutrality rules, which are designed to prevent internet providers from blocking, slowing or creating fast lanes for web traffic. Those regulations, which the commission passed in 2015 in what it called its Open Internet Order, transformed how the federal government oversees the internet by classifying broadband as a utility-style service. Democrats see the net neutrality rules as fundamental rights for internet users and are planning to fight tooth-and-nail to keep them.
“You saw what happened in just a few short days,” former Democratic FCC aide Gigi Sohn said of Democrats’ aggressive but ill-fated effort to block the GOP privacy measure. “This will be months and months and months of emails, phone calls, Twitter, Facebook, everything you can imagine.”
Republicans battled for months to repeal the FCC privacy rules, which would have restricted internet providers like Comcast and AT&T from using or selling data like browsing history without consumer consent. Broadband providers complained that the rules, approved by the commission’s previous Democratic majority on a 3-2 party-line vote in October and set to go into effect later this year, would give an unfair advantage to tech companies like Google and Facebook that also use consumer data but aren’t covered by the FCC regulations.
Republicans made the privacy rules one of their first targets for repeal under the Congressional Review Act, a legislative tool that the GOP has used several times this year to undo the Obama administration’s regulations.
In response, Democrats have ratcheted up the political rhetoric and messaging in hopes of turning voters against the GOP.
The DSCC says it’s running Google search ads against Flake and Heller on the issue, and state Democratic parties in Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota and Michigan are hammering Republicans there over the vote. They’re getting reinforcements from outside organizations like the tech activist group Fight For The Future, which says it will put up billboards in Washington and key districts around the country to call the GOP’s action a “betrayal” of voters.
Republicans have sought to turn the tables on Democrats, arguing that it’s actually the FCC privacy and net neutrality rules that harm consumers. They say the fact that websites like Facebook and Yahoo aren’t covered by the privacy rules would confuse consumers, and also suggest that the agency’s prescriptive regulations would block broadband providers from innovating.
“The impact of these rigid regulations has the potential to stifle one of the most innovative sectors of our nation’s economy,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said in support of the repeal resolution Tuesday. “And it is consumers who will suffer.”
The White House supports the effort to block the FCC privacy rules, but press secretary Sean Spicer declined to defend it when asked about the issue during Wednesday’s briefing. “When we sign it, I’m sure we’ll have further details on why,” he said.
With a Trump signature set to wipe the privacy rules off the books, the GOP is turning its attention to the net neutrality rules — the Obama administration’s biggest tech legacy and Republicans’ top tech target over the last two years.
Republicans say those rules could stifle investment in broadband networks and limit innovative offerings like so-called free data services from wireless companies. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai offered the latest signal Tuesday that he would repeal those regulations, highlighting the importance of returning authority over internet providers to the FTC, which lost that jurisdiction as a result of the FCC’s net neutrality rules.
“I strongly opposed usurping the FTC, and the FCC’s struggles to address the privacy issue over the past couple of years (along with its refusal to recognize consumers’ uniform expectation of privacy) has only strengthened that view,” he said in statement.
Pai’s FCC has the power to rescind the net neutrality rules, but doing so could cause a firestorm that makes the privacy backlash look quaint. Consumer groups have already previewed a fight akin to the uproar over the 2012 Stop Online Piracy Act, a copyright bill that prompted websites like Wikipedia and Reddit to go dark in protest and sparked a wave of calls and emails to Congress.
Some congressional Republicans like Walden and Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) want to pass more limited net neutrality rules as a middle ground, but many Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have painted that compromise as a non-starter.
“We think the Open Internet Order has been good for the public, good for consumers, and we think it’s tremendously popular with people, too,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.). “While they have the power and authority to do it, I just think they’re going to pay a heavy price if they keep moving in the direction they’re moving.”
Margaret Harding McGill and Ashley Gold contributed to this report.
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