This afternoon, the Senate voted — along a narrow 52-47 margin — in favor of protecting net neutrality. (More specifically, it approved a measure that used the Congressional Review Act to nullify FCC chair Ajit Pai’s attempted repeal of net neutrality.) This news is not as good as you might hope, but it’s not as bad as you might think.
The bad news is that net neutrality — the principle that stops your internet-service provider from playing favorites with how you use the internet — is probably still going to die. The House also needs to approve a similar nullification, and that is unlikely to happen. Even if it did, the bill would then head to President Trump’s desk, and the president seems (1) unlikely to contradict an appointee, (2) unlikely to strike down a rule that benefits big corporations like ISPs, and just as crucially, (3) unlikely to preserve a key legislative victory of the Obama administration.
But the narrow victory for net neutrality in the Senate does have the benefit of putting legislators on the record. The vote was mostly along party lines, with the support of all Democratic and independent senators, and notably, some Republicans: Louisiana’s John Kennedy, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Maine’s Susan Collins. All of the no votes were Republican (the missing vote belongs to John McCain, who was absent for medical reasons).
The thing is, the partisan divide in Congress is, more than most political issues, drastically at odds with how American voters feel about this issue across the political spectrum. A poll from December of last year conducted by the University of Maryland found that, when presented with comprehensive arguments for and against, 83 percent of registered voters supported net neutrality, regardless of political affiliation. Just as crucially, only 21 percent of Republican voters favored Pai’s supposedly small-government rollback order.
This makes net neutrality a useful tool on the campaign trail. Americans overwhelmingly support net neutrality, but Congress does not. Forcing a vote on this issue forces legislators to actually demonstrate whether they support net neutrality, not in principle, but in practice. As Massachusetts senator Ed Markey, who introduced the Senate measure, said after the vote, the “key question for anyone on the campaign trail in 2018 is ‘do you support net neutrality?’” It’s not the most pressing issue on the political agenda, but it is perhaps the most illustrative. Incumbents who vote against the open internet have laid bare their allegiance to big business and a willful ignorance of their constituents, while candidates who support net neutrality gain a stable platform plank. Even if net neutrality dies, it is absolutely essential that candidates never stop talking about who killed it.