The Gristle

Neutral Ground

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

NEUTRAL GROUND: In times of slim majorities and deep paralysis in decision-making, journalists search for policy matters on which there appears to be consensus, and even agreement, as a flickering indicator that parties and politics can actually come together to achieve public goals. One of these issues appears to be “net neutrality.”

Net neutrality as a concept discourages internet service providers from throttling the kinds of content you’re able to access online by placing a premium or surcharge on the speeds at which their service delivers such content. Instead, service providers have to treat all traffic sources equally. Net neutrality is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission.

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

In December, the FCC under new imperatives to roll back the work of the previous administration 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 “edge service” providers like Netflix and the FCC commissioners who voted against the repeal.

Democrats in Olympia have teamed with a few willing Republicans to push back against the FCC through a number of bills designed to protect net neutrality in Washington.

Senate Bill 6423 would reinstate net neutrality restrictions on internet service providers in an effort to prevent censorship and charge different rates, or “throttling.” The bill recently received a hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology, a committee Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) chaired until a reshuffling of leadership this year.

One of the more outspoken proponents of net neutrality is Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), who serves on the committee with Ericksen. Ranker helped sponsor SB 6423, which would prohibit internet service providers from exercising “deceptive” tactics and impairing or blocking legal web content.

The lower House of Representatives, meanwhile, is blessed with a few Republicans who also believe net neutrality is not a partisan issue.

Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, “this is an issue that needs to matter to everyone,” said Rep. Norma Smith, a Whidbey Island Republican.

She teamed with Bainbridge Island Democrat Drew Hansen to sponsor a bill that would ensure net neutrality in Washington state.

When each lawmaker discovered the other was at work on a similar, separate bill to strengthen the state’s regulatory control of net-neutrality regulations, they joined forces. Their two bills now mirror each other. The Appropriations Committee planned a hearing on the bills and one of the two identical bills will likely move into the House for a vote.

“The existing net-neutrality laws have served us well and kept [the internet] from being controlled by monopolists,” Hansen told the Seattle Times. “Net-neutrality protections help everyone: entrepreneurs, consumers, teachers, everyone.”

“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.”

A less aggressive bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), who now chairs the committee formerly suffocated by Ericksen. More laissez-faire, 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.

From the administrative branch of state government, Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit within hours of the FCC decision in December. His action would quickly be joined by counterparts in 21 other states and the District of Columbia.

“Allowing powerful special interest to act as the internet’s gatekeepers harms consumers, innovation and small businesses,” Ferguson said. “We believe the FCC acted unlawfully when it gutted net neutrality, and I look forward to holding the FCC accountable to the rule of law.”

“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 commented 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.”

There’s even some early talk of bringing the Washington Transportation and Utilities Commission into the discussion to regulate the ISP industry as a public utility. The UTC—a commission originally chartered to push back against railroad and electric utility monopolies—would play a guidance role similar to that of the FCC.

At the federal level, Senate Democrats, including U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have vowed to support legislation to overturn the FCC vote. Their action has the support of 49 Democrats in the United States Senate. The Democrats, along with a small number of Republicans who view net neutrality as an issue of free speech, intend to bring the matter to a vote later this year.

The combined effort is a hopeful glimmer that it’s possible to push back against federal overreach and find neutral ground to pursue reasonable policy goals that align with the public’s interest.

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