Donald Trump’s presidency brought with it a slew of conflict over deregulation initiatives. Perhaps the most controversial of these was the battle over Net Neutrality. In December of 2017, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality regulations that had been in place since 2015. Reactions to this were far spread, ranging from celebration to accusations of data censoring and totalitarian motives. As soon as the vote was done, political and legal battles on the issue began. While on the surface it seems that Republicans are against net neutrality and Democrats are in favor of it, the issue doesn’t seem to walk party lines as neatly as many other controversial topics do. While the Republican Party initiated the fight against net neutrality, which eventually led to its repeal, Republican views on net neutrality are actually varied.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality means applying well-established “common carrier” rules to the internet in order to preserve its freedom and openness. In essence, this prohibits the owner of a network from discriminating against or otherwise manipulating information by halting, slowing, or tampering with the transfer of data. To an extent, this keeps capitalism from interfering with the information we have access to online. A network carrier cannot prioritize your receipt of information from a site that pays them more over that of a smaller site that doesn’t pay a bonus, or from an organization whose views don’t align with their own.
Divided Republican Views on Net Neutrality
One of the most interesting aspects of this argument is the nature in which Republican views on Net Neutrality are divided. In general, Republican voters tend to be in favor of Net Neutrality, while Republican office-holders tend to be against it. A series of national polls show that up to 85% of Republicans are opposed to internet service providers (ISPs) charging web companies fees to transfer their information more quickly. This is actually higher than the percent of Democrats who opposed this situation, which was 81%. However, in Congress, only 15 Republicans voted against the repeal of Net Neutrality, as opposed to 215 who voted in favor.
There are a few theories as to why this may be. The first is that Republican office-holders want to take down Net Neutrality simply because it is a legacy of the Obama presidency. Another is that the internet service providers control a large amount of capital. While the final vote did not take place until Trump was president, much of the Lobbying for a re-vote on Net Neutrality took place during the last presidential election. Candidates who stood behind a plan that would likely cost ISPs money were less likely to get donations from them. Yet another theory states that, despite the fact that they believe in the controls Net Neutrality places on ISPs, it also gives the federal government a large degree of control over the internet. For example, under these rules, the government could theoretically regulate how much Comcast or Verizon can charge clients for an internet connection. The FCC has promised not to use these powers, but the idea that it could is outrageous to many Republicans, as the party overall believes in less federal regulation. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the higher-ups of the party are at odds with the general public on this specific topic, which is a situation that we rarely see.
Republicans Against Net Neutrality
As stated above, many Republican lawmakers opposed Net Neutrality and fully supported the plan to gut it. What do they see that the general public, who overwhelmingly supports Net Neutrality, does not? Chairman Ajit Pai (a former Verizon lawyer and Trump appointee to the FCC) and Commissioner Brendan Carr were at the forefront of the pro-dismantling discussions in the FCC. Much of their issues with the complaints was specific to the new regulations put in place in 2015, which Ajit Pai referred to as “heavy-handed micromanagement.” He went on to explain that he believes, “This decision was a mistake. For one thing, there was no problem to solve. The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We weren’t living in a digital dystopia. To the contrary, the Internet is perhaps the one thing in American society we can all agree has been a stunning success… The impact has been particularly serious for smaller Internet service providers. They don’t have the time, money, or lawyers to navigate a thicket of complex rules… These rules have also impeded innovation. One major company, for instance, reported that it put on hold a project to build out its out-of-home Wi-Fi network due to uncertainty about the FCC’s regulatory stance. And a coalition of 19 municipal Internet service providers—that is, city-owned nonprofits—have told the FCC that they “often delay or hold off from rolling out a new feature or service because [they] cannot afford to deal with a potential complaint and enforcement action.” None of this is good for consumers. We need to empower all Americans with digital opportunity, not deny them the benefits of greater access and competition.”
In short, it seems that Republican lawmakers believe the FCC regulations are far too heavy-handed, and that they are preventing small businesses from succeeding in the internet industry. This is an interesting contrast from the views of those supporting Net Neutrality, who believe that the repeal of the laws is what will harm small businesses, by keeping their information from being disseminated fairly. Pai’s plans seem to include putting an entirely different framework of rules into play, while the public perception of his plan seems to be to let the ISPs run rampant in an unregulated fashion. Mr. Carr spoke after Mr. Pai, and he also spoke of maintaining those regulations that would prevent discriminatory action by ISPs, but removing some of the heavier-handed and often misused regulations put in place under the Obama administration.
Republicans For Net Neutrality
While those fighting against Net Neutrality consist of the higher-ups in the Republican Party, this by no means indicates that there aren’t Republican Congressmen and Senators that are in favor of keeping Net Neutrality. A number of Republicans in Congress spoke out to at least delay, if not prevent, the vote to dismantle Net Neutrality in December 2017. As the FCC vote drew near, Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado stated, “The Internet has been and remains a transformative tool, and I am concerned that any action you may take to alter the rules under which it functions may well have significant unanticipated negative consequences. Therefore, I urge you to delay your upcoming vote and provide Congress with the opportunity to hold hearings on the net neutrality issue and to pass permanent open Internet legislation.” Senator Susan Collins also spoke out, stating “Internet providers must not manage their system in an anti-competitive way that limits consumers’ choices.”
Overall, Net Neutrality walks two lines that the Republican Party tries to protect. On one hand, it exercises a large degree of federal control, which Republicans oppose. On the other, it aims to protect businesses and ensure capitalism and competition in the marketplace, which Republicans support. This makes it an issue that doesn’t easily fall within party lines, and which Republicans have disagreed on quite adamantly.
- What Is Net Neutrality – ACLU
- Why 2016 Republicans Oppose Net Neutrality – Time
- More Republicans in Congress Criticize FCC’s Net Neutrality Plan – TechCrunch
- Read the Republican FCC Members’ Statements for Repealing Net Neutrality – Recode
- What is Net Neutrality? Net Neutrality Definition
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