Public Favors Change in Communications Laws

As anticipation mounts for the Federal Communication Commission’s unveiling of its net neutrality rules, U.S. voters support updating laws that regulate phone, television and internet companies, according to new Morning Consult polling.

Sixty-three percent of registered voters say Congress should update federal laws that pertain to telecommunication and internet providers. More than 25 percent of supporters went further, saying they strongly favor updating current regulations.

The last time communications statutes were significantly overhauled was 1996, with the passage of the Telecommunications Act. The law aimed to make it easier for broadcasters and phone carriers to enter new markets as internet service providers. Since then, the digital climate has changed significantly.

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Polling data also shows that independents align more with Republicans than Democrats when it comes to supporting an update to federal communications law. Seventy-five percent who identified as Democrats favored changes, while 56 percent of independents and 57 percent of Republicans said it was time for a change.

Morning Consult polling suggests that Americans want changes to the laws governing the telecommunications industry, even if they don’t know how long its been since Congress passed significant legislation in that arena. The poll tested two different messages asking American voters if they want updates to telecommunications law.  The first group were told the laws governing the internet, television and phone industries had not been significantly overhauled since 1996. The second group was asked if they wanted an update to the laws, with no mention of how long it had been since major changes were made. Nearly two-thirds of both groups said they wanted Congress to update the laws. In other words, telling people that the laws had not been updated since 1996 only moved the needle for support by three percentage points. That finding suggests that the Republican congress won’t have to work too hard to win the American public over when it comes to the overall idea of digging in to telecommunications legislation. Of course, it could also signal that Americans are simply sick of the gridlock in Washington.

On Monday, President Barack Obama made his strongest statement in support of net neutrality.

“We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas,” Obama said in a statement, arguing ISPs should fall under same Title II restrictions that telephone companies were regulated by the past 80 years.

Obama’s comments drew praise from many content providers.

“The Internet Association applauds President Obama’s proposal for the adoption of meaningful net neutrality rules that apply to both mobile and fixed broadband,” Michael Beckerman, president and chief executive officer of The Internet Association, said in a statement. “Using Title II authority, along with the right set of enforceable rules, the President’s plan would establish the strong net neutrality protections Internet users require.”

The Internet Association represents some of the biggest players online, including Inc., Google Inc. and Facebook Inc.

But internet providers and Republican lawmakers were critical of Obama’s stance.

“The president’s call for the FCC to use Title II to create new net neutrality restrictions would turn the Internet into a government-regulated utility and stifle our nation’s dynamic and robust Internet sector with rules written nearly 80 years ago for plain old telephone service,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a statement. And Thune’s position on the issue matters, as he is expected to take the gavel for the Senate Commerce Committee in January and has called for a congressional overhaul of the Communications Act during the 114th Congress.

Michael Powell, president and chief executive officer of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, also criticized Obama’s support for Title II regulation.

“We are stunned the President would abandon the longstanding, bipartisan policy of lightly regulating the Internet and calling for extreme Title II regulation,” Powell, a former FCC chairman, said in a statement. “The cable industry strongly supports an open Internet, is building an open internet, and strongly believes that over-regulating the fastest growing technology in our history will not advance the cause of Internet freedom.”

The Morning Consult poll was conducted from Nov. 7 to Nov. 9 among a national sample of 1,908 registered voters. Results have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Morning Consult