Senate Democrats approved a measure to quash the Federal Communications Commission's plan to overturn so-called net neutrality rules.
But major hurdles still face supporters of net neutrality, the principle that Internet Service Providers should give consumers access to all legal content and applications on an equal basis, not favoring some sources or blocking others.
Like many other national issues, the subject is a partisan one. Democrats were able to prevail 52-47 in the Senate with all of their party on board, plus three Republicans — Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.; and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is undergoing cancer treatment in Arizona and is not in Washington, D.C., to vote.)
However, the measure is unlikely to pass in the U.S. House and even if it were, would have to be approved by President Trump.
In December 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Trump in January 2017, shepherded the passage of the Restoring Internet Freedom order, which overturned net neutrality rules the agency had passed two years earlier when the commission was controlled by Democrats. Those Obama-era rules prevented Internet service providers from blocking or slowing legal traffic, or from being paid for prioritized, faster delivery.
The replacement rules, which go into effect next month, have a lighter-touch to enforcement. Internet service providers must disclose any blocking, throttling or prioritization of their own content or from their partners. However, they are not prevented from doing so, as did the 2015 rules.
ISPs have said they won't block or throttle legal websites, but have left open the potential for charging more for transport of some data.
Pai, the FCC chairman, expressed confidence the Democrats' effort would eventually fail. "The Internet was free and open before 2015, when the prior FCC buckled to political pressure from the White House and imposed utility-style regulation on the Internet," he said in a statement. "And it will continue to be free and open once the Restoring Internet Freedom Order takes effect on June 11."
But net neutrality supporters prefer tougher rules for ISPs and Democrats in Congress opted to propose a Congressional Review Act vote to overturn the 2017 measure (the CRA is a quick way to nix newly-passed regulations within 60 legislative days of passage).
By forcing a public vote on the issue — one that's popular with voters — Democrats hope to hike pre-midterm election pressure on enough lawmakers to gain a majority in the House. Passage in the Senate would “send a clear message to American families that we support them, not the special interest agenda of President Trump and his broadband baron allies," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who sponsored the CRA resolution.
The vote, he said, "will be the most important vote for the Internet in the history of the Senate, and I call on my Republicans colleagues to join this movement and stand on the right side of digital history.”
Collins said, in a statement, she voted for the measure to "ensure that the Internet will remain open and continue to be a powerful and transformative platform of innovation and economic opportunity."
She supports "bipartisan legislative reforms to the ... (The Communications Act of 1934) regulations that put consumers first."
But Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who on Wednesday attempted to have the CRA set aside and his own legislation draft considered, said in a statement, “This vote was about politics, not protecting net neutrality. Unfortunately, it’s only going to delay Senate Democrats from coming to the table and negotiating bipartisan net neutrality legislation."
Despite the challenges ahead, many groups supported the CRA vote, among them several educational and research organizations.
"It's important that we continue to push forward even when we don’t like our political chances because this is a really critical issue," said Krista Cox, director of public policy initiatives for the Association of Research Libraries. "A big part of this is continuing to support things we believe in but also raising awareness and ensuring that people are aware that Congress has the opportunity to act here."
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., a member of the House subcommittee on communications, said he is filing a discharge petition seeking a vote on the issue in the House. "We just need to get a majority of Representatives to sign it," he said. "I’m sure that every Member of the House will want to know where their constituents stand on this issue.”
However, the Democrats' deployment of the CRA may misfire since the law is meant to overturn regulations, not the repeal of regulations, says Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a free-market think tank. "It is unclear, as a matter of law, whether the CRA can repeal an 'order' as opposed to a 'rule'," he said in a statement.
Should the CRA actually pass, it could diminish privacy protections granted to the Federal Trade Commission in the 2017 order, May says. "If Congress wants to weigh in on net neutrality, it should not act inaptly, but rather affirmatively to adopt a law clearly embodying the policies and practices it deems appropriate.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.