The Midterm Races That Matter for a Free and Open Internet
A relentless assault on consumer rights could drive angry voters to the polls
If you’ve ever been frustrated by an internet provider’s bad customer service, rate hikes, or sketchy availability, you may have noticed that the market for broadband service is fundamentally broken. Americans pay some of the highest rates for broadband in the world, but our services lag behind in terms of availability and speed.
The root of this problem is an overall lack of meaningful competition. Most U.S. consumers have the “choice” of only one internet service provider (ISP), with largely nonexistent competition at faster speeds. Lobbyists representing AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast work tirelessly to keep it that way, and consumer groups say the problems have become more extreme in recent years.
Last year, industry lobbyists convinced Congress to dismantle modest ISP privacy protections. They also convinced the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under President Donald Trump to dismantle net neutrality rules, which protected consumers from a wide variety of anti-competitive behaviors from service providers. ISP lobbyists and the federal government then began targeting individual states as they tried to fill the consumer protection void.
While these issues trigger stark partisan bickering in Congress, the public has made its stance quite clear.
“Privacy and net neutrality, along with network reliability, are two of the basic protections that many people take for granted until they are not there,” Chris Lewis, vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Medium.
While these issues trigger stark partisan bickering in Congress, the public has made its stance quite clear. One recent study out of the University of Maryland found that 82 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats opposed the repeal of net neutrality, widely considered one of the most unpopular tech policy decisions in modern history.
“The issues of online privacy and net neutrality are among the most important to Americans today, and especially to voters,” Gigi Sohn, a former FCC lawyer and a key architect of the agency’s net neutrality rules, told Medium.
While tech policy isn’t always a key issue during midterms, the public’s growing anger could play a role this time around.
The Biggest Race
Few politicians have generated more anger among broadband consumers and consumer advocates than Republican Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn.
Blackburn is trying to jump from the House to the Senate to fill the seat vacated by Senator Bob Corker. Her opponent, former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, has consistently come out in favor of net neutrality protections, calling them “vital” while insisting that broadband is an “essential utility” that needs protection from ISPs looking to exploit a lack of competition.
Blackburn, in contrast, has been routinely maligned by internet activists and consumer groups as a rubber stamp for the telecom sector. AT&T is consistently one of Blackburn’s top campaign donors, which is reflected in her opposition to everything from net neutrality to tough privacy rules and the right of towns and cities to build their own broadband networks. Blackburn heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, one of the key committees that oversees the FCC.
The anger at Blackburn’s preferential treatment of companies like Comcast has earned her widespread condemnation among consumer groups like Fight for the Future, which went so far as to crowdfund billboards in her home district attacking her ties to industry.
“Marsha Blackburn has been one of the biggest House foes of an open internet and broadband privacy rules,” Sohn said. “Having her out of Congress would be a net benefit for the public interest.”
While Blackburn secured a small lead over Bredesen in recent polling, the advantage recently evaporated thanks in part to some last-minute support from pop icon Taylor Swift. Whether public anger at Blackburn’s assaults on net neutrality will actually make a difference remains to be seen on Election Day.
Beto Versus Ted
Another race being closely watched by consumer groups and net neutrality activists is Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s effort to unseat Texas incumbent Ted Cruz. Cruz has held his Senate seat since 2013, and, like Blackburn, he has consistently sided with telecom giants. Indeed, he played a starring role in dismantling the FCC’s net neutrality and consumer privacy protections.
Cruz’s opposition to net neutrality was made clear in 2014, when he tweeted that net neutrality rules was akin to “Obamacare for the internet.”
This misunderstanding of net neutrality was echoed in a 2014 Facebook post by Cruz where he stated, inaccurately, that net neutrality would somehow result in “fewer choices, fewer opportunities, and higher prices for consumers.” The post received widespread ridicule from Republicans and Democrats alike for grossly mischaracterizing the issue.
O’Rourke also made Cruz’s attacks on consumer privacy a point of contention during the duo’s final debate.
Cruz’s loss in the midterms would eliminate a key opponent to efforts to restore the FCC’s discarded 2015 net neutrality rules.
“Why does he vote for internet companies to sell your private data to the highest bidder without your consent?” O’Rourke asked. “If you look at the political action committee contributions to Senator Cruz, it helps to explain the reasons for his vote and how corrupted Congress has become.”
As an incumbent Republican in Texas, Cruz continues to maintain a healthy seven-to-nine-point lead over O’Rourke in most mainstream polls. Cruz’s loss in the midterms would eliminate a key opponent to efforts to restore the FCC’s discarded 2015 net neutrality rules and would see him replaced with a lawmaker seemingly interested in actual consumer protection.
Other Races to Watch
There are other hotly contested races that could dramatically affect future efforts to restore or replace consumer protections governing net neutrality, privacy, broadband availability, and service pricing.
“Every race is important in both Houses,” Sohn said. Should the balance of power shift toward politicians that actually believe in meaningful consumer protection, “it will mean much greater oversight of the FCC.”
It could also mean, she added, “a better chance at restoring the 2015 rules and FCC authority.”
That includes the reelection campaign of Democratic Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who has insisted that net neutrality is “essential to ensuring that the internet remains free and open for all.” Most polls currently have Nelson running neck and neck with Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, who has routinely opposed net neutrality.
Consumer groups have tried to help consumers understand that the desire for better broadband and meaningful consumer protections shouldn’t be viewed as partisan at all.
Industry watchers tell Medium they’re also closely eyeing the reelection campaigns for Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin and North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Baldwin plays a key role on FCC oversight committees, and Heitkamp has consistently supported efforts to restore the discarded FCC rules.
The race in Arizona to fill the seat vacated by Republican Jeff Flake is also of note, since neither Flake nor either of his potential replacements, House Representative Democrat Kyrsten Sinema or Republican Martha McSally, supported recent congressional efforts to restore FCC net neutrality rules using the Congressional Review Act (CRA).
The CRA allows Congress to overturn a regulatory decision with a simple majority vote. While the Senate voted 52–47 back in May to restore the discarded 2015 FCC net neutrality rules (with a few Republican allies), getting the necessary votes in the House has proven problematic, thanks to both Sinema and McSally’s refusal to sign the CRA discharge petition.
Activist groups like Fight for the Future believe they can help apply some public pressure on lawmakers like Sinema, and they maintain a scoreboard highlighting politicians they say have voted against the best interests of consumers for that exact purpose.
Something We Can All Agree On?
As they attempt to drive turnout, consumer groups have tried to help consumers understand that the desire for better broadband and meaningful consumer protections shouldn’t be viewed as partisan at all. “Broadband is not a partisan issue outside Washington, D.C., away from the influence of industry lobbyists,” Lewis said.
“When we do events and activities outside the Beltway, local officials of all political stripes share many of our concerns,” he said, noting that when his organization meets with small business owners, veterans, or public safety officials, “we don’t ask what party our supporters are.”
Again, that’s because the public’s collective disdain for companies like Comcast is one of only a few things that bridge our stark, partisan divide. Most Americans seem to understand that letting these natural monopolies run amok doesn’t end well for the end user, a belief based on decades of being nickel and dimed by cable, phone, and broadband providers.
“Every single day, we talk with scores of internet users who are pissed off and fed up with this Congress,” Tabish said. “It’s possible they’ve been the most dangerous group of lawmakers in the history of the internet.”