Democrats now attack internet rules they once embraced
© Lauren Schneiderman

In the Trump era, it is downright astounding how quickly the Democrats have abandoned any consideration toward having an affirmative policy agenda. The higher calling has instead been to become the party of unthinking resistance, energetically and blindly coalescing against every position of the current administration – even positions they once themselves espoused. We’ve witnessed their very public about-face on numerous issues, ranging from immigration, to states' rights, to Russia, and on and on. 

The latest example of their intellectual dishonesty pertains to the manufactured pseudo-controversy over net neutrality.  Despite broad bipartisan consensus on the core concerns of online censorship and throttling, and despite clear historical evidence for the right way – and the wrong way – to enforce these principles, Senate Democrats have declared a partisan holy war in which they will accept no outcome short of the de facto nationalization of our entire internet infrastructure.

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Their foolish push for a “Congressional Review Act” resolution to reinstate failed, antiquated “Title II” utility rules is not only terrible policy – it’s a terrible policy that many Democrats have themselves long opposed because of the obvious risks of overregulating a technology as dynamic, innovative, and unpredictable as the internet with rules originally written to manage the Depression-era rotary phone system.

Mainstream press coverage of the net neutrality debate has largely ignored this dynamic, continuing to misreport this as just another partisan skirmish between Democrats who support an open internet and Republicans who, they’d have you believe, don’t. 

But in truth, core net neutrality principles aren’t particularly divisive.  Wide majorities in both parties don’t think internet companies should censor or artificially slow down websites they don’t like.  Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate support enshrining these principles into law.

Net neutrality only becomes controversial when the conversation shifts to how these principles should be implemented.  For nearly 20 years, since the passage of the landmark Clinton-era Telecommunications Act, a bipartisan consensus held that the federal government should apply the lightest possible touch to oversight of the internet. 

The legacy of this bipartisan consensus was a spectacular success – more than $1.5 trillion dollars of private capital was invested to build out world-class networks across the country, vaulting us from 56k dial-up service to gigabit broadband in less than a generation.

And for a long time, plenty of Democrats were willing to defend this bipartisan consensus and oppose regulatory overreach.   When the Obama administration first considered the Title II nuclear option in 2010, 72 Congressional Democrats and more than 15 Democratic governors all sent letters to the FCC defending the traditional light-touch consensus. Plenty of progressive leaders, from civil rights groups to organized labor, joined that chorus.

Congress could have chosen, at any time during this historic growth, to supplement this light-touch framework with reasonable, straightforward net neutrality guardrails to preserve the freedom of the open internet. 

But Congress never did – in part because market pressures have proven overwhelmingly successful at preventing the sort of hypothetical harms loudly predicted by the Chicken Little brigade on Twitter. Instead, they kicked the can to the FCC, where repeated attempts to find a legal basis for open internet rules under the governing light-touch framework were shot down by courts. 

The Obama administration decided to solve this dilemma with characteristic overreach, nuking the two-decade bipartisan light-touch consensus and reclassifying the entire internet as a public utility in 2015.  Fortunately, under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC in December voted to correct that mistake and restore the historically successful light-touch framework.

And while many Congressional Democrats once ardently defended that approach, today’s Democratic party leaves no room for even the slightest deviation from leftist orthodoxy. Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' MORE (D-N.Y.) has put his full weight behind a strategy to reverse the FCC’s recent vote via the Congressional Review Act (CRA) – a move that would reinstate not only net neutrality rules, but also the absurdly ill-fitting rotary-phone utility rules. And every singly Democratic senator – including the so-called “moderates” like Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinElection Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Early ballots pouring in with 15 days to the midterms Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia MORE (W.Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Conservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign Donnelly parodies 'Veep' in new campaign ad MORE (Ind.) – has fallen into line.

The CRA was created as a mechanism to rein in rogue regulatory agencies who exceed their Congressional mandates.  It was never intended to reward and entrench regulatory excess, as Sen. Schumer is now trying to do.  If successful, his ploy would fundamentally and radically change to rules governing the internet – all without so much as a public hearing.

If Democrats are serious about protecting the open internet, rather than just exploiting grassroots energy for campaign cash, they should come to the table and join GOP leaders in working toward a real net neutrality law – one that preserves the light-touch framework the internet needs to continue thriving for another generation.

Matthew Kandrach is president of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.