Western states lead the fight to maintain net neutrality

Siding with tech giants, some lawmakers are pushing back against the FCC.

 

Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to disband protections for net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers cannot choose which websites to favor or block. The change gives internet service providers more opportunity to make money, but may hurt smaller businesses and internet users along the way.

Even though the West is home to some of the most important players in the tech industry, its rural areas often suffer from lack of internet access — a problem some argue could be solved by loosening net neutrality regulations. Open internet advocates, however, believe that net neutrality is essential to the free exchange of ideas and information on the internet.

FCC data show rural areas of the West have the least access to broadband internet. Use the map legend to view more information and hover over the stacked icon to select different views. Courtesy of FCC/Wireline Competition

There is broad bipartisan support for the regulations; a University of Maryland poll found more than 80 percent of respondents opposed repealing them. Now, Western states are leading the push for internet neutrality, arguing that the regulations are necessary to foster innovation and prevent big corporations like AT&T and Comcast from monopolizing the web.

Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock was the first state leader to issue an executive order aimed at upholding net neutrality, and the attorneys general of Oregon, California, Washington and New Mexico have joined a nationwide lawsuit against the FCC. Six Western state legislatures are considering bills that would enforce net neutrality on a statewide level. By opposing the federal policy and enacting their own regulations, states can signal to big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix – which all support net neutrality – that they are friendly to the cause. “What states are responding to is a very public outcry for net neutrality,” said Christopher Ali, a media studies professor at University of Virginia.

The FCC’s recent decision undid its own 2015 ruling classifying the internet as a telecommunications service. That gave the agency the authority to regulate internet providers and prevent them from discriminating against or favoring website content.

In Congress, the net neutrality debate has generally been split along party lines, with Republicans favoring less regulation and Democrats preferring stronger protections. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi are some of the staunchest supporters of rolling back net neutrality rules. They and other critics argue that the FCC was overstepping its authority and that the new regulations were unnecessary. Lighter regulations, they say, would give internet providers more incentives to invest in rural communities.

A March 2016 policy paper from the Senate Republican Policy Committee, chaired by Wyoming Sen. Barrasso, said, “FCC Chairman Wheeler’s open internet order will stifle innovation and investment in internet infrastructure and jobs; create uncertainty; and lead to years of litigation.”

Travis Kavulla, the vice-chairman of Montana’s Public Service Commission, said rural consumers could benefit from less regulation. For example, “Providers could partner with companies like Netflix to create cheaper internet packages.” Kavulla added that regulators should keep a close eye on one-provider markets — and step in to protect consumers if necessary — but that they should wait for problems to arise rather than making restrictive laws beforehand.

In supporting net neutrality, states are thumbing their noses at the FCC, which had declared that states could not develop their own protections. On Jan. 22, Gov. Bullock issued an executive order declaring that Montana would not give contracts to internet providers that don’t adhere to net neutrality principles. “There has been a lot of talk around the country about how to respond to the recent decision by FCC,” said Bullock. “It’s time to actually do something about it,” he said. He called on other states to follow Montana’s lead, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly signed an executive order of his own.

Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico and Washington have proposed legislation to protect net neutrality on a statewide basis. The California state Senate passed a bill on Jan. 29 that would introduce even stronger protections than those previously in place at the FCC; the bill now awaits passage in the state Assembly. Attorneys general from Oregon, California, Washington and New Mexico have joined a lawsuit with 17 other states and Washington, D.C., that argues the FCC’s recent ruling was not justified and that the changes were not supported by sufficient legal evidence.

Having a patchwork of net neutrality protections that varies by state is not the ideal way to regulate the internet, but it could become the status quo if state and federal lawmakers continue to butt heads. The conflict is the latest example of states pushing back against the Trump administration’s broad deregulatory agenda. Western states have been at the forefront of addressing climate change after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords and seem poised to continue the push for net neutrality. “We can’t wait for folks in Washington, D.C., to come to their senses and reinstate these rules,” said Bullock.

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial intern at High Country News.