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Democrats Are Bracing For A Big, Public Fight To Protect Net Neutrality

Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota.

Higher monthly internet bills, obnoxious video buffering, and a market where a future Netflix will be smothered by broadband giants are all part of a dark vision of the internet put forward by leading Senate Democrats Tuesday, one they fear may come to pass unless the public stands up for network neutrality.

Flanked by a host of consumer groups and armed with arguments highlighting the impact of a less open internet, Sen. Ed Markey launched a public battle in Washington to shield net neutrality from President Trump and a Republican controlled Congress. Network neutrality requires internet providers to treat all web traffic equally. Established in 2015, the rules were created to protect websites and services from being slowed or blocked by broadband companies.

Markey also called out the new Republican chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, describing him as a pawn for broadband kingpins. And he placed the campaign to safeguard net neutrality alongside other crucial efforts he said promote democratic values but are under assault by the new administration: the Affordable Care Act, the refugee program, and the Paris Climate Accord.

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"Net neutrality rules ensure that those with the best ideas, not simply the best funded ideas, have the opportunity to share their content with the world," Markey said during a press conference. "But now the big broadband barons and their Republican allies want to turn back the clock and make big cable and big cellphone companies the gatekeepers for internet access. And they have a new FCC chairman in Ajit Pai who will do their bidding."

Sen. Markey was joined by other outspoken Democratic supporters of net neutrality: Sens. Al Franken, Ron Wyden, Patrick Leahy, and Richard Blumenthal.

Franken was also highly critical of Chair Pai. The Minnesota Senator described the the Trump-selected FCC chief as someone who has "repeatedly sided with corporations over consumers." He added, "Pai's number one target appears to be taking down net neutrality."

"We all know what the stakes are with the new chairman of the FCC," said Sen. Wyden, who like Franken and Blumenthal don't seem to expect an olive branch from Pai. "He is prepared to do the bidding of the big cable companies at the expense of consumers."

According to Franken, the fight over net neutrality boils down to "mega-corporations" like Verizon and Comcast aiming to boost their bottom lines by choosing which content reaches American customers. Without net neutrality regulations, broadband companies will ultimately restrict what information, ideas, and entertainment people have access to, Franken said.

Getting rid of those rules, which prohibit broadband companies from discriminating or privileging certain content would be "completely irresponsible" Franken added.

"I hate buffering video, you hate buffering video, and I think we can all agree that small businesses deserve the same opportunities as big businesses," said VHX CEO Jamie Wilkinson. A subsidiary of Vimeo, VHX is a platform for selling TV and film online, a business whose operations depend on an equal playing field for internet upstarts, and one that would be choked off if internet companies can charge for so called "fast lane" tolls to connect services to people's homes, Wilkinson said.

"This is another one where, early on, it's going to feel like we are really pushing the rock up the hill.  But if it comes down to the citizens and the people at the grassroots against the special interests, then we can win that." -Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-OR)

Gene Kimmelman, President and CEO of Public knowledge, a consumer group, said, "It is a fundamental consumer issue and a First Amendment issue when consumers have to pay through the nose for cable service and broadband service." He continued, "When companies are, or certainly act like monopolies, to give them additional power to discriminate, to pick and choose winners on the internet, it is only going to drive up prices, limit choices, and harm all of us."

As they underlined the stark consequences of an internet without net neutrality, Sens. Leahy, Wyden, and Blumenthal emphasized the need to rally support to influence Congress and the FCC, noting that nearly four million comments flooded the commission before net neutrality was passed in 2015.

"The millions of comments the FCC has gotten before, we just got to get them again," said Sen. Leahy.

"This is another one where, early on, it's going to feel like we are really pushing the rock up the hill," said Sen. Wyden. "But if it comes down to the citizens and the people at the grassroots against the special interests, then we can win that."

While Chair Pai has declined to say what measures he will take to dismantle or diminish net neutrality, he made his opposition to the open internet rules clear during his first meeting as the agency's chief last week. "My present position is pretty simple: I favor a free and open internet and I oppose Title II," he said, referring to the classification of broadband companies as akin to utilities, subject to more robust regulation.

In response to the criticism of Chair Pai at the press conference Tuesday, a spokesperson for the FCC told BuzzFeed News: "Consistent with the bipartisan consensus dating back to the Clinton Administration, Chairman Pai supports a free and open Internet but opposes heavy-handed Title II regulation. The Internet was free and open before the 2015 party-line vote imposing these Depression-Era regulations."