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Net neutrality has a new champion: Meet Sen. Brian Schatz

The senator from Hawaii says he's fighting to keep the existing net neutrality rules alive.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Net neutrality still has its allies.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii is leading the fight among Democrats to preserve existing net neutrality regulation.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii is leading the fight among Democrats to preserve existing net neutrality regulation.

Getty Images

Among them is Senator Brian Schatz from Hawaii, the leading Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing the Federal Communications Commission.

Schatz is among several outspoken Democrats, including Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota, who have criticized a proposal FCC chairman Ajit Pai floated earlier this month that would dismantle the existing rules governing net neutrality.

Pai, a Republican appointed in January as chairman by President Donald Trump, says that while he supports the principles of an open and free internet, he doesn't like Title II, the utility-style legal framework the rules were based on.

The proposal, which guts the legal framework of the 2015 rules and asks if any regulations are even necessary, will officially be opened for public comment on May 18 after the three-member FCC votes on it. This will start the process to roll back the Obama-era regulation.

Schatz says the FCC is trying to destroy the internet with the new proposal, and vowed to preserve the existing rules, which bar broadband providers from playing favorites.

The issue has made waves outside of the world of wonky Washington insiders, igniting a firestorm of protest online. Last Sunday, comedian John Oliver mocked Pai and urged consumers to get involved by flooding the FCC with comments supporting net neutrality. Access to the FCC's electronic comment system slowed following the segment, but the FCC later said it was a victim of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that caused the system to go down Sunday night by bombarding it with phony traffic.

Schatz and other Democrat officials dispute this explanation and have asked the FCC to produce evidence of such an attack.

CNET talked to Schatz to hear his views on Pai's proposal and why he thinks protecting a free and open internet is so important. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Q: Why do you think it's important to protect the existing net neutrality rules?
Schatz: The internet is working because it's free and open and there's no discrimination. Without these rules ISPs could treat content differently based on commercial interests or even ideology.

The most important thing to remember here is that the internet is not broken and all of the innovation that we've seen since inception has been based on it being free and open. In fact, it is so foundational to what the internet is that it's hard to imagine a future without it. But if they go through with this there will be no guarantees in terms of the law that an ISP wouldn't block, throttle, prioritize or otherwise mess with your content.

But you could argue that before we had these rules, the internet wasn't broken either.
Schatz: Well, I think that [Pai and others who oppose the rules] made a number of claims after net neutrality was made official that didn't come true. They said it was going to hurt investment in broadband infrastructure. They said it would hurt profitability. It did none of those things.

My question for Mr. Pai is what problem are you solving and on whose behalf are you working? There is not a single constituent in my state or any other state that I've ever met (who doesn't work for a telecommunications company) who has any problem with the open internet order or with the utilization of Title II. There is literally no constituency for this. This is not a situation where the community on the internet is divided. This is about everybody who uses the Internet versus those who control access to it.

What troubles you the most about Pai's proposal?
Schatz: I have a pretty friendly professional working relationship with Mr. Pai, and I told him not to walk down too much of a partisan path. I didn't think it would be good in terms of policy. And I didn't think it would be good in terms of the FCC's ability to solve other problems.

I found it troubling that he announced his decision before really starting the proceedings in earnest. The FCC is a quasi-judicial body. It is supposed to undertake this period of public comment with a degree of seriousness and respect. It was frankly shocking to me that he said, 'This is a fight, and we intend to win it." I mean, he's not an elected official. He's the chairman of a quasi-judicial body. And he has an obligation to keep an open mind to this process.

Were you bothered that the proposal asks whether there should be any rules at all?
Schatz: Listen, we can't have voluntary net neutrality, and that's what he's proposing. We should not rely on the good judgement and good will of any corporation to protect the open internet. This is not to say that they are bad people. But at some point they may find it more profitable to have a different business model, which would allow them, for instance, to make content that is part of their vertical faster.

It's not unimaginable that a company would do that. It is not currently their practice. But if it's not currently their practice and if they don't intend to change their practice, I don't see why they would have such heartburn about it being codified by rules.

It seems like Republicans like Pai are trying to take the debate back in time when the industry argued rules weren't necessary. What do you think?
Schatz: I think they lost the first round and they're just re-litigating an old battle. But I think what they have underestimated is that you have the same constituency in favor of net neutrality that you've always had. But you also have the fact that this isn't something that's going to be established, but rather something that is going to be taken away. And when you take something away, it makes people livid. You combine that with a newly engaged activism online in the age of Trump, then I think they are in for an enormous surprise.

Speaking of activism, do you think activists may become fatigued? Do you think net neutrality risks getting lost with everything else going on?
Schatz: My own view of political organizing is that activism begets activism. The more people do, the more they want to stay engaged. I do not believe there is a finite amount of energy out there for people to engage. I think this is a unique opportunity for a left/right coalition, as well as specifically engaging young people, who use the internet and really hate the idea that they wouldn't have equal and open access to whatever website, content, apps, that they want to have access to.

The constant ping-ponging on the issue can't be good for the industry. When Democrats were in control we had net neutrality rules backed by Title II classification. Now Republicans are in charge, it swings back the other way. Do you think that we need legislation to make net neutrality rules law?
Schatz: Theoretically I'm open to legislating. But it's very difficult right now because of what the commissioner is doing. He's created a deeply polarized environment. The idea that turning the temperature up creates the conditions for a negotiation, I think, is hard to believe.

So you think he's flaming the fire of this partisan issue?
Schatz: I don't think there's any doubt about it. I mean, to say, 'This is a fight and we intend to win," is a pretty unusual rhetorical flourish for an FCC chief.

I know Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has proposed some legislation, what's the problem with what he's proposing?
Schatz: It overrides the Open Internet Order. It eliminates net neutrality as a matter of law.

But I thought he pitched his legislation as a way to protect net neutrality without the baggage of Title II?
Schatz: Yeah, he may have said that, but that's not what the bill does. It literally overrides the Open Internet Order, as a matter of law.

So it doesn't provide protection against broadband providers who block or slow down access to services or web sites?
Schatz: No. It's a really maximalist, anti-net neutrality position, in that not only does it repeal net neutrality, but it does it as a statute.

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