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Federal communications law should be updated

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The Los Angeles Times published this editorial Jan. 17 on a Congressional bid to preserve net neutrality.

Congressional Republicans breathed new life last year into the all-but-ignored Congressional Review Act, using it to reverse a wide range of Obama administration regulations on the environment, consumer protection and workplace issues. Now Senate Democrats are trotting out the act to undo a Republican effort to let cable and phone companies meddle with the internet. This particular turnabout is most definitely fair play.

At issue is the Federal Communications Commission’s move not just to repeal the strict net neutrality rules it adopted in 2015, but also to renounce virtually all of the commission’s regulatory authority over broadband internet providers. Its new “Restoring Internet Freedom” order, adopted last month on a party-line vote, opens the door to the likes of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon giving deep-pocketed websites and services priority access to their customers for a fee. It also lifts the ban on broadband providers blocking or slowing down traffic from legal online sites and services, provided they do so openly. Such steps could cause unprecedented distortion in what has been a free and open internet.

The Restoring Internet Freedom order was a triumph of ideology over sense, sacrificing the interests of internet users and innovators on the altar of deregulatory purity. Some leading broadband providers, recognizing that they got more from the FCC than they’d bargained for, pledged never to use their newfound freedom to interfere online. But that’s not enough.

Ideally, Congress would do something it should have done a decade ago: update federal communications law to give the FCC a mandate and clear authority to protect net neutrality. In the meantime, though, Senate Democrats have gathered more than enough support to force a floor vote on a resolution to reject the new FCC order and bar any similar deregulation for 10 years. In fact, they’ve lined up 50 senators in favor of the resolution, including one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine. That’s just one short of passage.

The prospects are dimmer in the House, where Republicans seem to rank deregulation in the pantheon with Mom and apple pie. Still, the fierce public backlash to the FCC’s order is powering a multi-front effort to repeal it, including lawsuits (one of which was filed Tuesday by the attorneys general of California, 20 other states and the District of Columbia) and proposals for state net neutrality laws in California and elsewhere. Although the FCC’s abdication invites states to wade in, no one should be eager for a patchwork of state neutrality rules.

That’s all the more reason for Congress to step up. Lawmakers should reject the FCC’s latest rule and preserve the qualities that have made the internet what it is today.