Internet

Al Franken: Net neutrality protects your rights, so protect it

Sen. Al Franken says that if the FCC ignores millions of Americans and guts net neutrality, the courts will step up to protect the First Amendment.

Sen. Al Franken has long been a supporter of strong net neutrality regulation. He's hopeful the FCC will listen to millions of Americans and protect its 2015 rules. 

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Sen. Al Franken wants to make sure that deep-pocketed broadband companies can't hijack the internet.

That's the message the Minnesota Democrat has been delivering in a series of videos, tweets and Facebook posts in support of the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules. Franken, along with several other Democrats in the Senate, have been turning up the pressure on the FCC as the Republican-controlled agency considers a proposal to dismantle the rules.  

Franken, who's long been a leading voice on Capitol Hill supporting strong net neutrality, participated in the online "Day of Action" protest Wednesday to encourage the public to file comments with the FCC to keep the existing rules.

The Obama-era rules were crafted to prevent broadband companies from favoring their own content over competitors' services or charging fees to deliver faster service. The regulations have been controversial because the FCC changed the classification of broadband in order to treat it like a public utility. Broadband and wireless companies say the regulations impose on the internet an outdated law designed for the old telephone network.

In May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai introduced a proposal that would return broadband to its previous classification and wipe away the existing rules. Net neutrality supporters, like Franken, say that doing this would give broadband and wireless companies too much control over the internet and would kill innovation.

CNET talked to Franken on Wednesday about the online protest and what's next in the fight to keep the internet free and open.

Q: I know you shared videos and participated in discussions as part of the online protest to protect the net neutrality rules. Are you happy with the level of participation in the "Day of Action" protest?

Yes. I talked to Ed Markey [a senator from Massachusetts] and he said we're up to more than 6.5 million comments in total to the FCC. That certainly breaks the record of 4 million comments filed to the FCC a couple of years ago, which made so much of an impact on the 2015 rules. So that's a good number. I think that will hopefully have an effect on the FCC, but also on the courts. And since this issue may end up there again, that's important.

Do you think the outpouring of public support for the rules will change FCC Chairman Pai's mind?

Knowing him, I'm very skeptical about whether anything would change his mind. He was dead-set on this when he testified to me for the Senate Judiciary Committee. But I'm still optimistic here. Not about changing his mind, but others'.

Do you think you can change the other Republican on the FCC, Commissioner Michael O'Rielly's mind?

Hopefully.

There are two other FCC commissioner nominees who should be confirmed in the next few months: Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who had been on the commission in 2015 when the rules were passed. She voted in favor of them. And Brendan Carr, a Republican currently serving as the chief counsel to the FCC staff.  So you hope the more than 6 million comments on the proposal to roll back the rules will influence the votes of these commissioners?

That's right.

But O'Rielly has been opposed to any rules and it seems unlikely that Carr, once confirmed, would break ranks. So let's just assume that none of the Republicans on the FCC will cross party lines to vote against this proposal to dismantle the rules. What's next?

Then it's back in the courts.

Is that really an ideal solution to have this issue bouncing back and forth between the FCC and the courts every time an administration changes in the White House? The big broadband companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast say they want Congress to step in. And even Facebook, which said it supports the current rules, is also urging Congress to take action. Do you think new legislation is needed?

I don't think new legislation is needed. The regulation that is in place right now works, and I think that the court will uphold it if the FCC overturns it.

If the Republicans were to come to you and ask for help in drafting bipartisan legislation, would you be willing to work with them on it?

It depends on what they're talking about. If they're talking about something that fundamentally undermines net neutrality, the answer is no. But if they're talking about something that puts strong net neutrality protections into law, then sure.  It would depend on what they come up with.

Sen. Thune [a Republican from South Dakota] offered a proposal in 2015 that he claims would have outlawed blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of legal content over broadband and wireless networks. He has said his plan would have ensured broadband companies couldn't use their power to manipulate the internet experience, while at the same time making sure the government couldn't overregulate. Would legislation like that be acceptable?

His proposal was too weak. It was not a real attempt to keep an open internet.

Some critics of Thune's draft bill say it would have gutted the authority of the FCC. Is it important to make sure that the FCC still has the authority to enforce rules?

I think it is important that the FCC has that responsibility. But honestly, I think any legislation that we would get in the current Congress would be weaker than the Open Internet order that's in effect now. This principle of keeping the internet open is so important. The internet is really basic to the First Amendment. And it doesn't matter if it's the FCC or Congress that provides those protections. It just needs to be protected.

So what can Congress do? Should lawmakers be pressuring the FCC to keep the existing rules in place?

We have a lot of members of Congress who have been champions of this regulation and who feel strongly about it.  There are a few Republicans who are knowledgeable about it, too, and who feel strongly about the issue.

Do you think this is going to be an issue that comes up in the 2018 midterm elections?

It might be because I think that generally younger voters tend to know this issue and tend to understand its importance more than their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents, for that matter. 

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