The Federal Communications Commission voted last week to approve a proposal to begin dismantling net neutrality, the latest step in a series of moves by conservatives targeting federal regulations that protect consumers from Internet service providers (ISPs). One of those moves came earlier this month, when Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn co-sponsored a bill called the Restoring Internet Freedom Act. The bill, authored by Utah Republican Mike Lee, would pretty much permanently prohibit the FCC from reimplementing regulations aimed at preventing ISPs from blocking, throttling, or favoring websites and apps in exchange for money. Texas is the only state to have both Senators sponsoring the proposed legislation.
Repealing net neutrality has long been a goal for Cruz, and he’s arguably pushed harder for it than anyone else in Congress. Back in 2014, at the height of the net neutrality battle, Cruz controversially called the regulations “Obamacare for the Internet,” and in a 2014 editorial in the Washington Post Cruz called net neutrality “one of the biggest regulatory threats to the Internet.” But Cruz and other proponents of Internet deregulation in Congress found little success throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. The Restoring Internet Freedom Act mirrors two similar bills put forward in the Senate in 2015 and 2016. Both bills went nowhere. Last fall, Cruz spearheaded a last-hour push to try to stop a decision by the federal government to transfer oversight of a non-profit that controls Internet domain names to private global players. That effort fell short, too.
Perhaps emboldened by a White House suddenly friendly to deregulation, Cruz and his Republican colleagues were able to score a big win in March, when Congress passed a resolution to nix Obama-era regulations that required ISPs to get your permission before they track and sell your data to third parties, a which Cruz and Cornyn co-sponsored. Constituents directed a “flood of outrage” toward Cruz, Cornyn, and other GOP members who voted to pass the resolution, according to the Hill, in part over concerns that ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast had bought unfairly large influence. The ISP giants have pumped massive amounts of money into legislation like this, targeting lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Cruz and Cornyn seem to be among the politicians who have benefited most from generous ISP benefactors, according to Vocativ, citing data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks the impact of money and lobbying on elections and public policy. Cornyn received nearly $160,000 in political contributions from ISPs since 2012, more money than any other senator who supported the resolution. Cruz, meanwhile, took in more than $115,000 from ISPs during that same span.
The risk of potential backlash clearly hasn’t deterred Cruz from continuing his crusade against net neutrality. The prospect of repealing net neutrality protections is generally very unpopular. More than a million people have commented on the FCC’s new proposal, and according to one researcher’s analysis, 96 percent of those commenters are in favor of keeping the regulations in place (you can read all of the comments on a webpage set up by the FCC). Earlier this month 171 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, signed a letter urging the FCC to preserve net neutrality. Critics also say that repealing the rules would be particularly harmful among minority and low-income communities, where strong Internet access is a key gateway to healthcare resources that would otherwise be unavailable or hard to find. And Tom Wheeler, who served as FCC chairman under Obama, co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post last month warning that if net neutrality regulations disappear, then “deep-pocketed corporations will upend how we get our news, watch our favorite shows, use social media or run our businesses.”
The argument from this camp, it seems, is that the FCC proposal and the Restoring Internet Freedom Act would actually make the Internet a lot less free.
Cruz’s press office did not respond to our emailed questions asking for a response to those criticisms and for what he’s heard from Texans on this issue. But Cruz did release a statement when the Restoring Internet Freedom Act was introduced earlier this month, according to Vice News: “I am proud to work with my friend Mike Lee on the Restoring Internet Freedom Act, a bill that rolls back former President Obama’s power grab, protects open internet principles, and recognizes the transformative effect that the internet has had on our lives, generating billions of dollars of new economic activity and millions of jobs, largely free of government’s heavy hand.”
He also co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post with Lee and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, countering former FCC commissioner Wheeler’s earlier op-ed. “We reject the idea that the federal government should control the Internet,” the trio wrote in the Post. “We want more competition, not less. More investment, not less. More innovation, not less. We support an open Internet. But we reject the notion that heavy-handed regulations are the way to accomplish this goal.”
A spokesperson for Cornyn responded to our emailed questions by directing us to remarks Cornyn made on the floor earlier this year. “They unnecessarily target internet service providers and ultimately make our internet ecosystem less efficient by adding more red tape,” Cornyn said in March. “The bottom line is the FCC privacy rules are bad regulations that need to be repealed.”
Both Cornyn and Cruz seem closer than ever to reaching that objective.