WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono cited Madame Pele and the recent 50-inch deluge on the North Shore of Kauai as the Senate Wednesday passed a measure intended to restore Obama-era net neutrality rules. 

Hirono said recent events in Hawaii highlighted the need to maintain a level internet playing field, particularly for local news outlets that often become the main source of information for communities suffering from natural disasters.

Over the past month, Hawaii residents have been devastated by record rainfall that washed out roadways and destroyed homes. More than 2,000 people have been evacuated from parts of the Big Island due to ongoing volcanic activity at Kilauea.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono worries what might happen to the free flow of information during natural disasters should net neutrality rules get rolled back. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“Restoring net neutrality protections is about more than just what shows you can watch on Netflix and Hulu,” Hirono said as she stood next to images of lava spewing forth from the earth.

“We depend on the internet for nearly everything in our lives from staying in touch with loved ones on social media to communicating with doctors and paying our bills. It’s also about preserving access to information in times of need.”

The Obama administration imposed rules in 2015 to maintain net neutrality. But the Republican-controlled FCC voted in December to roll back those protections in a move that was pushed by Ajit Pai, who was President Donald Trump’s pick as chairman of the agency.

All 49 Democrats in the Senate supported the resolution to reinstate net neutrality rules. They were joined by GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. 

Republicans described the effort as “political theater” because the GOP-controlled House is not expected to take up the issue and the Senate’s margin could not overcome a presidential veto.

Before the vote, Hirono highlighted the work of Hawaii’s local news outlets, from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and The Garden Island to Civil Beat and Hawaii News Now, when discussing the ramifications of the FCC’s December decision to nix neutrality.

The concern is that if cable and telecom companies are allowed to pick and choose which content gets the fastest service, block certain websites or charge more for quicker speeds it could hurt small media organizations that are already struggling to stay afloat.

“Residents on Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island have depended on a free and open internet to receive up to the minute and life saving information from local media as well as from federal state and local governments,” Hirono said.

News agencies weren’t Hirono’s only concern. She said that repealing net neutrality could hurt relief groups that use social media to organize response to natural disasters and to solicit donations to help cover the costs.

“There is no constituency on the other side of this other than the telecommunications companies.” — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

Republicans, including Pai, have been opposed to the net neutrality rules, saying it’s an example of unnecessary government regulation that they fear could stymie investment in telecommunication infrastructure. They also downplay concerns of jacked up prices.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said the internet thrived long before the Obama administration stepped in with rules in 2015, and he predicted that when the FCC repeal is in place, consumers won’t notice a change in their service.

“That’s what we’re going back to: rules that were in place for two decades under a light-touch regulatory approach that allowed the internet to explode and prosper and grow,” Thune said.

Polls have shown that more than 80 percent of Americans — including 75 percent of Trump supporters — think net neutrality is a good thing. During the floor debate Wednesday, some Democrats said they’ll use net neutrality as a campaign issue this fall. 

“This vote is a no brainer,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said while speaking on the Senate floor. “Net neutrality is one of the most popular issues that the Senate will consider this year.”

Senator Brian Schatz speaks at the Democratic of Hawaii's unity breakfast held at the Dole Cannery Ballroom. 14 aug 2016
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has been a vocal advocate within his party for net neutrality. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Schatz, the ranking member on a the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, has been a leading voice for the Democrats in the debate over net neutrality.

On Wednesday, he said the arguments against it are largely pushed by the industry.

He said consumers are already frustrated with their internet providers, whether it’s getting slapped with hidden fees, paying for the cost of installation or watching their bills go up after a promotional period ends.

And while some internet service providers have promised to be good to consumers if net neutrality goes away, Schatz said the only avenue to stop a corporation from “doing all the wrong things” is hold them accountable under the law.

“There is no constituency on the other side of this other than the telecommunications companies,” Schatz said. “You don’t go to a town hall meeting and see this thing evenly split.”

Material from Associated Press was used in this report. 

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