Democrats must have a better response on net neutrality than simply 'no'
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“Resist. Persist. Insist. Enlist,” my preferred presidential candidate (Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCohen once teased Hillary Clinton about going to prison. Now he's been sentenced to 36 months The Hill's 12:30 Report — Cohen gets three years in prison | Fallout from Oval Office clash | House GOP eyes vote on B for wall Contest offers 'Broadway play and chardonnay' with Clinton MORE) said recently. For progressives like myself, her call resonated powerfully. But we now must take that banner and turn it into a real program.

There are many fronts on which resolute opposition is the only answer to an administration intent on taking us in a frightening direction – climate change, Dodd-Frank, ObamaCare. But we need to do better than parallel Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP-controlled Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi vote Overnight Defense: Senate moves toward vote on bill ending support for Saudi war | House GOP blocks Yemen war votes for rest of year | Trump throws uncertainty into Pentagon budget | Key Dem to leave transgender troop ban to courts Senate moves toward vote on ending support for Saudi-led war MORE’s unpatriotic plan of 2009 – total opposition in the name of partisanship.

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A case in point is the choice that Democrats face now on net neutrality, a signature accomplishment of the Obama years.

 

Let’s review. “Net neutrality” is simply this – everything that travels on the Internet moves at the same speed and on the same terms and conditions. Simple as that. Your internet provider can’t block your access to any legal content, and they can’t slow down Netflix just to give their own video service an unfair advantage.

A decade ago, this was a radical doctrine. Today, it’s widely accepted, even by industry. Why? There are many reasons, but a driving one is that, thanks to massive investments and competitive pressure, all of the Internet has the same speed and reliability that “fast lanes” did a decade ago.

When the Obama administration first enacted “net neutrality,” the courts ruled that the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a signature achievement of the Clinton administration, did not give the Federal Communications Commission the right to impose it. So the FCC upped the ante by declaring that the Internet should be governed by the same set of rules that governed the telephone system in the days of the Ma Bell monopoly (in regulatory parlance, that they fall under “Title II”).

And there’s the rub. The Internet has become a modern-day wonder because it was exempt from Title II. Title II was opposed by groups like the Communications Workers of America and the NAACP during the last round of debate on this issue because it threatens jobs and hurts American workers by taking away the incentive to invest in a better Internet.

Title II gives the regulators the authority to force the companies that build faster connections to share them with whomever comes along at government-determined prices. At a time when cable, telco, wireless, and satellite providers are competing with each other, it risks bringing American global Internet leadership and its status as the home to the greatest, most innovative, Internet companies in the world to a halt. And, in fact, those competitors accelerated their massive investment programs only once the court ruled that Title II didn’t apply to the Internet.

Yes, Trump-approved FCC Chairman Ajit Pai intends to revisit this issue. But getting rid of “Title II” utility rules doesn’t mean we can’t still have strong, enforceable net neutrality rules. Chairman Pai could still work with Democrats to fashion a binding, enforceable replacement that ensures net neutrality survives the repeal of the “Title II” framework. The Congress on its own could take away the gaps in the FCC (and Federal Trade Commission’s) authority to ensure net neutrality, including a ban on blocking lawful websites, no throttling traffic, and no anticompetitive paid prioritization.

Democrats must also pressure ISPs to enact real, enforceable net neutrality commitments once Title II is repealed. And the best answer of all may lie in full blown net neutrality legislation itself – a heavy lift in a polarized Congress but a fight worth having for progressives who can lay down a marker on their commitment to a free and open Internet.

The activists who urge unbending resistance will undoubtedly attack Democrats who work to fashion new rules. But what will they gain? The writing is on the wall for Title II, and progressive leaders have their chance to pour cement around its demise – building a new foundation to protect consumers and every American who depends upon the Internet for school, work, culture, and political participation. In fact, that principled, and potentially bi-partisan, leadership would provide a stark contrast to the Republicans who are quick to de-regulate but not quick to think things through.

Everyone in Washington has seen the value of intense, consistent resistance to an administration running helter skelter through an ill-considered policy agenda. But on the future of the Internet, “no” simply isn’t good enough. Democrats must work for an effective replacement to these vital rules in Congress and at the FCC and show that, perhaps unlike their counterparts, they’re prepared to offer the country thoughtful leadership.

Ev Ehrlich (@Evehrlich) was undersecretary of commerce from 1993-97.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.