Democratic senators push to save net neutrality rules under Trump

Senators and digital rights groups promise to fight any attempt to roll back the regulations

Democratic senators have promised to fight any move by President Donald Trump's administration to gut the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules.

Any moves by Trump or the Republican-controlled FCC to roll back the 2015 regulations will meet stiff resistance from Democratic lawmakers and digital rights groups, the five senators said during a press conference Tuesday.

Millions of U.S. residents called for the FCC to pass strong net neutrality rules that prohibit broadband providers from selectively slowing or blocking internet traffic, said Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

The senators were joined by seven digital rights groups, including Public Knowledge, Free Press, and Fight for the Future.

While critics have suggested the regulations hurt broadband investment, providers spent US$76 billion to upgrade their networks in 2015, the second highest total since 2001, Markey noted. "There is no problem that needs to be fixed," he added.

New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has promised to roll back the net neutrality rules, and Republicans opposed to regulations control Congress. Late last month, Pai declined to outline a path forward on net neutrality.

But in recent days, Pai closed an FCC net neutrality investigation into mobile free data plans, and he proposed to exempt small broadband providers from net neutrality requirements to tell customers about their network management practices and the impact on broadband service.

The odds may appear to be stacked against net neutrality advocates, but internet users can have an impact on U.S. policy, said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. Five years ago, millions of internet users, joined by thousands of websites, successfully stopped Congress from passing two unpopular online copyright bills, including the Stop Online Piracy Act, he noted.

Pai "is prepared to do the bidding of the big cable companies at the expense of consumers," Wyden said. Fighting a repeal is not "going to be easy," but Democratic lawmakers and digital rights groups can change the outcome, he added.

Speakers at the press conference described net neutrality rules as a protection for free speech online. Without the rules, broadband providers can demand that websites pay for priority traffic routing, and small innovators will be left behind, they said.

"We only exist because of net neutrality," said Jamie Wilkinson, CEO of Vimeo subsidiary VHX, a digital video distribution service. With net neutrality rules, broadband providers "aren't able to create fast lanes that my company, and most of my customers, couldn't afford," he added.

Even small delays online are serious problems for independent video providers, he added. "Online, seconds matter," Wilkinson said. "Being relegated to the slow lane is basically a death sentence."

A spokesman for Pai didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on the press conference.

But Fred Campbell, director of free-market think tank Tech Knowledge, called on Congress to pass legislation to iron out net neutrality policy. Without congressional action, the FCC can change its mind about net neutrality rules every time there's a change in party control, he said.

"Without new Congressional legislation, the FCC's net neutrality rules will keep swinging like a pendulum with every presidential election," he said by email. "A lasting approach to net neutrality must come from the democratic process in Congress, not executive fiat."

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