The fight for net neutrality in 2019

Mark Stanley
Dec 31, 2019 · 13 min read

A look at some of the year’s highs and lows — and what comes next.

Massive waves of grassroots energy. The evolution of hard-hitting organizing tactics. Extreme highs and some frustrating lows — these have all been trademarks of the years-long campaign for net neutrality. This past year was no different, and in many ways 2019 was emblematic of the energetic ebb and flow that has defined the broader battle for an open internet.

Net neutrality — the concept that monopolistic internet providers cannot block, throttle or relegate traffic to online slow lanes — has long been a foundational issue for Demand Progress and our two million members. Years into this campaign — and in the midst of ever-shrinking micro-news cycles — it’s clear the righteous anger animating this issue will endure. And, in the face of widespread and well-earned cynicism about the country’s democratic processes, the fight for net neutrality continues to demonstrate the positive difference public mobilization can have on policy.

Over the past 12 months, the coalition working to secure net neutrality secured significant victories that will have a lasting impact on the ability to freely connect and communicate online. The following is Demand Progress’s up-close account of some of the moments that defined the push for net neutrality in 2019.

Setting the stage for a historic vote in Congress.

As is often the case when discussing net neutrality, some historical context is in order, and 2015 is an appropriate place to start here. That year, in one of the internet freedom movement’s greatest victories, the Federal Communications Commission enacted the Open Internet Order regulating broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. This provided the necessary legal authority for the FCC to enforce net neutrality. Importantly, Title II authority is necessary not just to net neutrality, but more broadly to the FCC’s ability to protect internet users from unjust, unreasonable, and discriminatory behavior by internet providers. This authority also allows the FCC to advance crucial and popular policies, including promotion of affordable access to broadband and privacy protections for consumers.

Following the election of Donald Trump, leadership of the FCC shifted to Chairman Ajit Pai, who had previously served as a top lawyer for Verizon, a fierce opponent of net neutrality. Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC repealed Title II-based protections in late 2017, in a massive giveaway to his former employer and the rest of Big Telecom.

A pro-net neutrality protest outside a Verizon store on Dec. 7, 2017, in New York City. (Photo by Demand Progress’s Mark Stanley)

In the lead-up to the FCC’s repeal, Demand Progress, as part of the Team Internet distributing organizing project, coordinated over 700 in-person protests across the country outside Verizon stores and lawmakers’ offices. Following the FCC’s vote, this unprecedented swell of grassroots energy did not diminish.

In 2018, Demand Progress and our allies organized more than 250 on-the-ground, strategically targeted activism events and helped drive millions of contacts to key lawmakers. The crowning achievement of this advocacy was the bipartisan passage in the Senate of a Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn the FCC’s repeal. Notably, the measure gained the support of every Democrat and three Republicans — Senators John Kennedy, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski. Unfortunately, then-Speaker Paul Ryan blocked a vote on the measure in the House, but not before support for the CRA among representatives snowballed there as well.

Team Internet activists outside Sen. John Kennedy’s New Orleans office on Jan. 30, 2018. (Photo by Team Internet activist)

The shot clock to pass the CRA ran out at the end of 2018, but the energy behind it set the stage for action in a new Congress. When Democrats took back the House in the 2018 midterms, leadership — keenly aware of the enormous energy and popularity behind the issue — committed to making net neutrality a top legislative priority.

Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, along with Senators Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Ron Wyden, Ed Markey, Rep. Mike Doyle, and more at a net neutrality event on Capitol Hill in February 2018. (Photo by Demand Progress’s Mark Stanley)

Three crucial votes, and passage in the House.

Going into 2019, advocates were positioned to secure a historic win by passing strong Title II net neutrality legislation in the House — a long-time goal. Still, given the telecom industry’s massive lobbying capacity and ability to distribute millions in campaign donations, successfully passing such a bill was far from given. The effort, predictably, turned into a knock-down Capitol Hill clash that necessitated creative and bold public pressure tactics.

Early in 2019, Rep. Mike Doyle, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, and Senator Ed Markey introduced bicameral legislation known as the Save the Internet Act, which would restore the net neutrality protections repealed by Pai’s FCC.

With Democratic leadership committed to net neutrality as a top priority, the Save the Internet Act (HR 1644) began to move quickly in the House.

Before it reached a floor vote, however, it had to make it through two intense committee markups. The first was through Doyle’s subcommittee. Here, it could only afford to lose a very small number of Democratic votes and still pass. Unfortunately, as many as five Democrats —Reps. Schrader, Butterfield, O’Halleran, Cárdenas and Soto — were believed to be wavering. By tweeting at, driving constituent phone calls to and holding in-district events, Demand Progress and our allies helped ensure all five of these members voted favorably for a clean bill. The Save the Internet Act successfully passed out of the subcommittee on an 18–11 vote on March 27th, with Republicans introducing but ultimately withdrawing five amendments that would weaken the legislation.

Activists gather at the offices of Reps. Butterfield, Cárdenas and Schrader on March 21, 2019, ahead of the first of three key votes on the Save the Internet Act. (Photos by Team Internet activists)

In their statements, Reps. Soto and Cárdenas remarked upon the degree to which they heard from constituents on this issue, underscoring the impact of grassroots activism.

Almost immediately, the Save the Internet Act faced a full Energy and Commerce Committe vote. Again, it was necessary to hold Democrats and defeat weakening amendments — which we did, passing the bill on April 3rd, 30–22.

Riding this momentum, the bill rushed toward a floor vote in the House on April 10th, and passed 232–190. Activists were able to help hold every Democrat and pick up a Republican vote.

As the legislation progressed, representatives who were once seemingly on the fence became emboldened by what they were hearing from the public. On April 9th, Rep. G.K. Butterfield rose to give remarks in support of the bill ahead of the floor vote. He began by emphasizing the outpouring of communications from his constituents in North Carolina.

“Phone calls and letters from my constituents make it abundantly clear, they want to see broadband internet expanded in their communities, they want greater consumer protections, and they want it now.”

Rep. Butterfield cites constituent support as he speaks forcefully in favor of the Save the Internet Act on the House floor.

The rhetoric of champions like Rep. Mike Doyle also became bolder. Ahead of the floor vote, Doyle noted that he hadn’t “come to Congress to work for internet service providers.” The line was a powerful nod to the corrupting influence of Big Telecom in the debate. Impassioned remarks like this spurred the transformation of Doyle into an internet folk hero to those watching a Twitch livestream of the action hosted by our friends at Fight for the Future, which garnered millions of views over the course of the three votes.

Once the legislation passed the House, it faced an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate, but activists were ready for the fight. Demand Progress captured this spirit in WIRED after the final House vote.

In the day following the vote, in a testament to the unprecedented grassroots energy behind the push to pass net neutrality legislation, Speaker Pelosi had an admonishment for Leader Mitch McConnell and other obstructionists in the Senate.

“If they are not going to pay attention to the public will, I think there’ll be a price to pay. We wish they would. We’d rather have the bill passed than them pay a political price for not passing it. So they will weigh in, and it is a barrage, a storm of public opinion that just bombards the Capitol like they have never seen.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s @TeamPelosi account tags Demand Progress, in a shout out to our two million activist members following passage of the Save the Internet Act in the House.

Guarding against threats in the Senate and House.

Meanwhile, threats to strong net neutrality were gathering in both chambers. Republicans — having already introduced a handful of bad bills that would permanently establish a lower level of protections than those in the 2015 Open Internet Order — had openly tried to derail the Save the Internet Act before its final passage in the House in a public display of obsequiousness to Big Telecom.

And in the Senate, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema had formed a so-called “working group” with Republican Commerce Committee Chair Roger Wicker shortly after the Save the Internet Act was introduced. Elected to serve as Arizona’s senator in the 2018 midterm, Sinema was notably the only Democrat to oppose Save the Internet Act, in what appeared to be a cynical attempt to pass corporate allegiance off as a maverick political approach.

All the more problematic was the fact Wicker, as chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over net neutrality, had been an outspoken critic of strong Title II protections. Wicker and Sinema claimed the purpose of their group was to craft bipartisan legislation — but with both lawmakers opposed to strong protections, it was clear the true aim was to distract from and decrease the momentum behind the Save the Internet Act. Demand Progress went to work opposing the working group, including by calling Sinema out in the press. To date, the Wicker-Sinema effort has not gained traction, with membership failing to grow beyond its two founding members.

Meanwhile in the House, a fledgling effort led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer to mimic Wicker and Sinema’s ill-conceived endeavor was underway. When news broke of a letter in circulation, which had been signed by Democrats calling for a House working group that would undermine the Save the Internet Act, net neutrality allies sprang into action. In just 48 hours, Demand Progress organized its own letter signed by 32 of the country’s leading open internet organizations unequivocally opposing Gottheimer’s proposal.

The advocacy letter was accompanied by aggressive social media calling out Gottheimer and urging representatives who had signed to distance themselves from his proposal. Further, Gottheimer’s proposal— in a move with stunningly bad, yet revealing optics— was announced on the Republican House Energy and Commerce website. Greg Walden, the ranking Republican on the committee, had been the most vocal opponent of the Save the Internet Act during the three votes earlier in the year.

The proposal also came out just around the time journalist Ryan Grim was publishing a series of unflattering stories about Gottheimer, the New Jersey representative with strong corporatist leanings. The first highlighted Gottheimer’s antagonism toward progressives and active opposition to progressive causes in Congress. Another provided a view into Gottheimer’s mistreatment of staff and a bizarre tale of punching an employee’s car. The letter, social media pressure, and amplification of this spate of negative press helped turn Gottheimer’s proposal toxic. The proposal ultimately went nowhere, remaining — for now— nothing more than a politically noxious trial balloon that quickly popped.

Journalist Ryan Grim notes the duplicity behind Rep. Gottheimer’s working group proposal, which would undermine the Save the Internet Act.

McConnell obstructs — and a summer activism spark.

In the same week the Save the Internet Act passed the House, Leader Mitch McConnell bluntly declared that net neutrality was ‘dead on arrival’ in the Senate. The declaration was a clear harbinger for what has since been his steadfast and disastrous obstruction on open internet protections supported by 86% of Americans, including 82% of Republicans.

Senate Leader Mitch McConnell responding to a reporter about the Save the Internet Act.

In an effort to shine a spotlight on the stonewalling by McConnell and his allies, Demand Progress organized a day of action on June 11th, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of the FCC’s repeal going into effect. On the same day, Senators Ed Markey, Ron Wyden and Maria Cantwell made an unanimous consent request on the Senate floor to bring the Save the Internet Act to an immediate vote.

As part of the day of action, Demand Progress led a delivery of over 3.5 million unique petition signatures and comments in favor of net neutrality to Mitch McConnell’s office in Washington, DC. Groups including Free Press Action, Fight for the Future, Consumer Reports, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, National Hispanic Media Coalition, 18MillionRising.org, PEN America, and the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press helped deliver the petitions and comments. The delivery was captured on a livestream that reached over 1.2 million people across Twitch, Facebook, and Twitter.

Advocates deliver 3.5 million pro-net neutrality petition signatures and comments to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Demand Progress’s Mark Stanley)
A shot of the ‘Epic Livestream’ of the petition delivery to McConnell’s Capitol Hill office.

Demand Progress also launched an online coalition action supported by 26 national netroots groups demanding senators cosponsor and that Mitch McConnell allow a vote on the Save the Internet Act.

The online action generated nearly 220k signatures, including over 100k in just over 24 hours on the day of action. Simultaneously, Demand Progress helped recruit over 100 nonprofit and public interest organizations — including Daily Kos, Democracy for America, Friends of the Earth, and more— to sign a letter to Sen. McConnell in support of the Save the Internet Act.

While the unanimous consent request was ultimately blocked by Chairman Wicker, the day of action generated substantial press coverage and robust social media activity, showcasing the massive energy that still surrounded the issue.

Calling on presidential candiates to support net neutrality.

In August, Demand Progress launched an ambitious effort urging all 2020 presidential candidates to commit to supporting strong open internet rules.

With nearly 20 groups on board, Demand Progress launched an online activism site asking candidates to pledge to support net neutrality. The petition was eventually signed by over a quarter million people calling for presidential hopefuls to take the pledge.

Notably, the pledge focused not just on restoring Title II-based protections, but also on rejecting rejecting campaign contributions from Big Telecom. The effort picked up coverage in The Hill, CNET, The Daily Dot and Commons Dreams.

As reported by Andrew Wyrich at The Daily Dot, multiple candidates have said that if elected president, they will appoint FCC commissioners who will restore strong net neutrality.

Court decision opens the doors for action in the states.

In early October, a long-awaited court decision on the FCC’s net neutrality repeal came down from the DC Circuit, in Mozilla vs. FCC.

Unfortunately, the court did not object to the FCC’s 2017 classification of broadband under Title I, as opposed to Title II. However, the court did rule that the FCC did not have the authority to prevent states from enforcing their own net neutrality laws.

The court’s ruling has opened the door for states to pass strong protections, and in a positive sign, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans to pass the “strongest net neutrality protections” in the country.

#NetNeutrality still trending as 2019 closes.

#NetNeutrality trends on Twitter in December 2019.

On Tuesday, Dec. 10th, to mark the two-year anniversary of the FCC’s vote to repeal net neutrality, Demand Progress helped organized a tweetstorm to highligth a second unanimous consent request, again made by Senators Markey, Wyden and Cantwell, to bring the Save the Internet Act to a vote.

As expected, the request was again objected to by Senator Wicker, but the social media activity around the request was so massive — with dozens of national groups and lawmakers taking part — that #NetNeutrality trended on Twitter. The fact the issue still garnered this level of engagement, including on a day that news was dominated by Democrats’ announcement of Articles of Impeachment, underscored the extent to which net neutrality would continue to be top of mind for activists going into 2020.

Why we continue to fight.

In 2019, net neutrality advocates helped pass historic legislation in the House. In order to achieve this, we drove phone calls and emails, held in-district events, promoted massively popular livestreams, and engaged in social media campaigns pressuring key lawmakers, some of whom became ardent champions.

The process involved getting the bill through three difficult votes, unscathed. Throughout, we held every Democrat and picked up one Republican, meaning net neutrality measures — including the 2018 Congressional Review Act in the Senate— passed both chambers of Congress in the span of less than a year, with bipartisan support.

Still, with legislation stalling in the Senate in 2019 and no clear signs yet that McConnell will heed the demands of the public, some ask: Why continue the fight?

As Public Knowledge’s Lindsey Sterns and journalist Karl Bode have laid out, the abuses by internet service providers since the repeal of the Open Internet Order went into effect have been been substantial. This is not in abstract issue, nor one on which we should wait — real harms are being perpetrated, and it is very much worth the fight, now.

And just as the fight to pass the Congressional Review Act in the Senate in 2018 set the stage to pass the Save the Internet Act in the House in 2019, what we have achieved this year will set the stage for 2020. Whether it’s a new presidential administration restoring net neutrality, or individual states forging ahead with their own laws following the DC Circuit’s ruling, we are poised — thanks to the continued activism of millions — to regain net neutrality protections and end the abuses by Big Telecom that threaten freedom of expression, civil rights, and the ability to innovate.

But we also fight because in doing so we are helping to restore some semblance of equilibrium to our democratic process. At its core, net neutrality is not only about the freedom to communicate and innovate online — it is about contesting concentrated power, preventing giant corporations from manipulating policy debates in Washington, and beating back the corrosive influence of money in politics. Each time we make forward progress on an issue in which the other side’s lobbying prowess and campaign contributions dwarf our own, it’s a win for the public against the ability of special interests to have their way and outright rig the game in Washington.

Demand Progress

Updates from the DP Team

Mark Stanley

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Demand Progress

Updates from the DP Team

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