Photo by Nicole Jennings

Photo by Nicole Jennings

State legislators combat federal ruling on net neutrality

One Senate bill would prohibit internet service providers from exercising “deceptive” tactics and impairing or blocking legal web content.

Democrats in the state Senate are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission through a number of bills designed to protect net neutrality in Washington.

In April 2015, the FCC established new rules that reclassified broadband services as telecommunications, which made the internet something of a “common” good, similar to telephone services. This barred internet service providers from discriminating against certain forms of content, such as those that might compete with a company’s own.

In December the FCC voted to repeal the Obama-era rules and essentially brought an end to net neutrality in the United States, prompting criticism from public officials, content-streaming giants like Netflix and the FCC commissioners who voted against the repeal.

Within hours of the FCC’s decision, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the agency, along with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The two would later be joined by counterparts in eight other states and the District of Columbia.

Now, two weeks into the 2018 legislative session, state Democrats have made it clear that they don’t intend to stand down regarding the FCC’s decision.

“One of the most crucial foundations of our democracy is free speech, and in the modern age that has to include the principle of equal and unfettered access to the internet,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a legislative preview event Jan. 4. “This is yet one more example where we have to seize our own destiny, protect our own people, when there is a failure to do so in Washington, D.C.”

One of the more outspoken proponents of net neutrality is Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who recently introduced Senate Bill 6423, which would prohibit internet service providers from exercising “deceptive” tactics and impairing or blocking legal web content.

“We’re in a situation now with net neutrality where businesses would be able to throttle up or throttle down the internet in ways that would affect everybody,” Ranker said. “A vast, vast supermajority of Washingtonians do not want these things unregulated.”

While FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to repeal net neutrality prohibits states from creating their own laws on the topic, Ranker said the agency has been “ambiguous” on these rules, and the senator said net neutrality bills were much more than symbolic and could bring real change to Washington.

A less aggressive approach came from Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who introduced a bill which would simply bring transparency to local internet service.

Senate Bill 6446 would require that providers publicly disclose network management practices and commercial terms of broadband internet services. The disclosure would have to be “timely” and “sufficient” to afford consumers the ability to make informed decisions when selecting a provider.

SB 6446 received a public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 18 in the Senate Energy, Environment & Technology Committee, where Carlyle serves as chair. Carlyle said at the hearing that he was motivated by public interest in the issue when drafting the bill.

Several members of the broadband industry came to oppose the bill, which Carlyle said he expected and welcomed.

CEO Michael Schutzler of the Washington Tech Industry Association said the bill was too vague and would be difficult to enforce.

“There’s no standard for what accurate or ‘sufficient’ is, nor is it reasonable for anyone or some forced combination of ISPs to be responsible for educating all consumers,” Schutzler said. “This reasonable language is so wide it’s also impossible to implement.”

Another argument made by Schutzler and others regarded the federal nature of the net neutrality issue. Bob Bass, president of AT&T in Alaska, Washington and Hawaii, said that state borders make broadband legislation complicated for consumers traveling between states.

“The internet doesn’t stop at a state border,” Bass said. “We believe that this needs to happen at a federal level so that we can have consistency.”

But Ranker said that federal legislators have been unable or unwilling to do anything about net neutrality, and that it falls on the states to craft legislation on the issue.

“What we need is transparency in this situation,” Ranker said. “The states must act if we are going to protect our citizens.”

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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