OPED: No shortcuts on net neutrality

Garrett Johnson
Lincoln Network

Pennsylvanians care deeply about net neutrality. Over the past two years, they have demanded strong rules that would prevent any internet company from manipulating their information, discriminating against or censoring websites, and limiting competition online.

As Congress debates the issue, it is critical that all Americans keep the pressure on for permanent net neutrality protection — not another temporary measures that shifting political winds or waning public attention can undo. And the only way to entrench a lasting solution is for members of both parties to work together and codify open internet principles.  Instead, however, many members are currently focusing their efforts and political capital on yet another quick fix approach.

The latest partisan maneuver is known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA), an arcane procedure that kicks the issue back from Congress to the Federal Communications Commission — a five-member body whose composition is determined by whichever political party controls the White House.  Passage of the CRA may temporarily put in place net neutrality rules, which is useful, but would do nothing to protect them from future meddling or invalidation by the courts.

Activist groups have focused on the CRA approach because it contains procedural shortcuts that can guarantee a quick vote.  In a Congress that has trouble simply keeping the lights on, that’s a great advantage.

More:EDITORIAL: Take a stand for net neutrality, Toomey

Unfortunately, those short cuts come with tremendous costs. Passage of the CRA will not create permanent net neutrality rules but instead just return the issue to an inconstant FCC that is free to change them at any time. Rather than give us finality and certainty, the CRA leaves the internet in a murky abyss. This issue would remain fodder for warring political factions and a muse for fundraising drives of professional advocacy organizations. But the complex ecosystem of the internet needs the opposite — clear, certain, and reliable rules of the road. 

The CRA is also limited in scope and can’t be used to enact truly comprehensive net neutrality rules that cover the entire ecosystem fairly — broadband providers and also the giant tech platforms like Facebook or Google that have been the source of so much controversy lately.  Rules that can't stop many of the biggest and most influential internet companies from favoring their own products over competitors’, censoring unpopular viewpoints, or limiting participation by diverse and under-represented communities fail to live up to the true promise of net neutrality or deliver the basic online fairness that voters so clearly want.

It’s true that passing major bipartisan legislation is always a challenge, especially in this era of extreme polarization. But we must work together to restore faith in our democratic institutions and in Congress’s ability to solve complex challenges. Especially on technical areas like internet policy that aren’t as fraught with the hot button emotion of more divisive social and political issues. 

Lobbyists on both sides of this issue may stand to benefit financially by continued fighting but consumers have made clear net neutrality is an unarguably bipartisan issue.  A poll by the browser company Mozilla last year found that 81 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans support net neutrality protections. The same poll found that 78 percent of Americans also doubt that Congress will do what it takes to protect net neutrality, but that only makes it even more important for our representatives to act and prove the skeptics wrong. 

More:AP Explains: What is net neutrality and why does it matter?

Members of Congress are under extraordinary pressure to take the easy way out on this, check the box with an easy CRA vote, and move on to other things. And those who have resisted that siren call like Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey should be recognized and commended.  

Everyone who uses or depends upon the internet and cares about lasting, long-term protection for net neutrality is indebted to them.

— Garrett Johnson is a co-founder of the conservative Lincoln Network, a national community of technology professionals.