from the performative,-not-practical dept
Democrats have a “strategy” they really love to employ that involves pushing bills they know will never pass. The idea is that while the bill may not pass, it will bring extra attention to whatever issue they’re pushing, and force the GOP to put their opposition to (policy X) on the record, shaming them publicly.
Of course, neither usually happens. The press can barely be bothered to cover new laws, especially if they deal with complicated policy. And the modern Trump GOP doesn’t really feel shame for corrupt, dumb, or otherwise terrible policy choices. Being shameless and ignorant has kind of become the entire brand.
But the Democrats persist, often using decades old strategies (hey, want to sign this petition?) to push doomed legislation in a futile bid to shame the shameless. This strategy was again on stark display with Senators Markey and Wyden’s release of a new net neutrality bill this week.
The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act is a simple, two-page bill that would once again reclassify broadband as an essential service under Title II of the Communications Act, restoring the FCC consumer protection authority removed during the controversial 2017 Trump FCC repeal. The bill doesn’t itself restore net neutrality; it punts that obligation to the FCC which is under no obligation to follow through.
The bill itself is a great idea. It codifies FCC Title II authority into clear law, putting to rest the regulatory tug of war that occurs on telecom policy every time the parties change power. We’ve noted repeatedly how the repeal was a corruption-fueled mess, utilizing all manner of complete bullshit and fraud, to do something Comcast wanted but a vast, bipartisan majority of the public opposed.
The bill not only killed popular net neutrality rules, it gutted much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority, punting most remaining authority to an over-extended, less telecom savvy FTC that lacks the authority to police the sector (the whole reason Comcast and AT&T wanted it). It even tried to ban states from protecting broadband consumers, though the courts haven’t looked kindly on that part.
The repeal was a giant gift to telecom monopolies, who prefer their regulators slack jawed and lobotomized as they price gouge American consumers stuck in highly uncompetitive markets. And despite a contingent of ignorant pundits who claim the repeal didn’t matter because the Internet didn’t immediately explode, this kind of blatant corruption matters.
Look At Us, We’re Doin’ Stuff
The problem, there’s no indication any political dynamics have changed since Senator Kyrsten Sinema and numerous key senators scuttled the last attempt to restore the rules in 2019 using the Congressional Review Act. It’s unlikely to pass. It may not even come to a vote. Markey’s office wouldn’t comment when asked about their strategy to actually obtain the needed votes.
It’s also the middle of summer, so the bill announcement dropped with a bit of a thud, undermining the whole “raising awareness” objective. Net neutrality, while important, has bored the public and press to tears. They signed their petitions, they called their lawmakers, they even protested for 15 years, and the net result was jack shit. It’s been five years since the repeal, and nothing meaningful has really changed in terms of actually fixing the problem.
The other problem: even if the bill passes, the FCC can’t really implement and enforce the new law. It currently sits gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners thanks to the GOP’s and telecom industry’s protracted attack on belated Biden nominee Gigi Sohn, whose confirmation vote has been all but scuttled. This is all thanks to a coordinated propaganda campaign accusing her of hating cops, rural America, and puppies.
I’m told by some folks in activist circles that the Biden administration’s belated, nine-month late nomination of Sohn has screwed up a lot of policy timing. The nomination was purportedly belated because they (absurdly) thought the appointment of a popular, competent reformer would create controversy as they tried to float the infrastructure bill.
But the delay then gave the telecom sector and GOP time to galvanize opposition to Sohn, which includes Joe Manchin. And it punted numerous other proposals from the net neutrality bill to the equally performative ban on broadband caps into the summer, where folks would be less likely to notice them.
I’ve heard repeatedly that Sohn has received virtually no strategic or messaging support from the Biden administration as she faces down a parade of criticism concocted by AT&T and Rupert Murdoch, who don’t want her implementing media and telecom reform of any kind. She’s also received virtually no support from her potential future colleagues at the FCC.
She’s received some support from consumer groups and lawmakers in the form of an occasional op-ed nobody actually will read, petition campaign nobody signed, or throwaway comment during an interview, but nothing you’d call particularly revolutionary or effective in the modern, controversy-obsessed media environment. Most left wing tech and telecom activism remains stuck somewhere in 2004.
Getting Sohn appointed to the FCC before the summer recess should have taken messaging priority over absolutely everything. Including press events for doomed bills unveiled when everybody was at the beach. Like the GOP, there should have been an absolutely relentless drumbeat of creative criticism about the corruption currently blocking Sohn’s nomination across the entirety of social media.
There were certainly some unavoidable obstacles to Sohn’s nomination vote (one key lawmaker had a stroke, for example), but should Sohn’s nomination be scuttled (and it’s looking likely), the failure to message effectively and whip up the votes is an historic strategic failure that won’t soon be forgotten.
Not A Complete Waste Of Calories
So is the bill totally pointless? No. Activists tell me that there’s been a lot of turnover at many Senate offices, so pushing the bill can be a learning experience for new staff. The fight over net neutrality is really a fight against monopolization and consolidation, and for competent, adult oversight of a very broken business sector. As such, it’s a fight that’s not going away anytime soon.
It’s also arguable that some, muted awareness is better than no awareness at all. Keeping net neutrality in the headlines (though at this writing, only a handful of outlets could even be bothered to cover the bill’s unveiling) still serves a function. Especially in the “big tech” era, where telecom policy conversations have been deemed decidedly unsexy by the policy discourse gods.
And finally, the bill advertises that some lawmakers still care about issues like telecom consumer protection ahead of the midterms, even if they’re too powerless or strategically incompetent to do anything meaningful about it. That’s not exactly impressive, but it’s also not nothing.
Filed Under: broadband, competition, fcc, net neutrality