Matt Driscoll

In net neutrality fight, Inslee and Ferguson might be posturing politically. That’s OK.

Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media in Olympia on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. He said the state will take steps to protect consumers regardless of how a vote by the Federal Communications Commission on a plan to undo the country's net-neutrality rules turns out. The FCC voted Thursday to roll back those rules.
Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media in Olympia on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. He said the state will take steps to protect consumers regardless of how a vote by the Federal Communications Commission on a plan to undo the country's net-neutrality rules turns out. The FCC voted Thursday to roll back those rules. AP

Perhaps it was political posturing and gamesmanship, at least in part.

Perhaps that’s OK, at least in this instance.

On Wednesday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both Democrats, did one of the things the duo does best — throw a press conference strongly challenging the Trump administration.

In this case, the specific target was the Federal Communications Commission’s assault on Obama-era “net neutrality” rules. That attack has come largely under the guidance of former Jeff Sessions staffer and one-time Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, a Republican whom Trump appointed to the post of FCC chairman.

On Thursday, as Inslee, Ferguson and so many others feared, the FCC punctuated that assault by voting along party lines to undo guaranteed equal access to internet that net neutrality provided.

Now, internet service providers — no longer burdened by the requirement that they treat all internet traffic equally — will be able to engage in all sorts of troubling practices. Powerful companies like Pai’s former employer, Verizon, are free to charge different rates to different customers, create fast and slow lanes on the internet and slow or block certain content altogether.

The potential ramifications are terrifying and far-reaching. If you have faith that these giant ISPs will act with society’s best interest in mind, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

If you’re in favor of a free and open internet, you’re not alone. A recent University of Maryland survey found that 83-percent of respondents opposed the repeal of net neutrality regulations.

For this majority, unfortunately, the move was a bummer you likely saw coming. So did our governor and attorney general.

For Inslee and Ferguson, however, the FCC’s vote provided not just an opportunity to stand up for something that matters deeply — net neutrality — but yet another stage to raise their own political profiles.

Prognosticators have long suggested Inslee is at least considering a 2020 presidential bid. Meanwhile, Ferguson — the state’s liberal darling of the moment — has long seemed to be setting himself up for a 2020 gubernatorial run (despite his best, relatively unconvincing efforts to tamp down such speculation).

Which brings us to motives.

Yes, there are some that would suggest that politicians using their public platform to further their own career aspirations is something to be chided. And, yes, I’d often agree with that sentiment. We’re not paying taxes for politicians to use them to bolster their resumes.

But the battles Inslee and Ferguson have chosen with the Trump Administration — like challenging Trump’s ban on military service by transgender citizens or his punitive executive orders on immigration — have usually passed the smell test. That makes them not just savvy career moves, but strategic political plays that also happen to be in the best interest of everyone, including the citizens of this state.

The net neutrality fight is a prime example.

Inslee suggested this week that the state might considering taking a number of steps to preserve an open internet. These steps include pressuring ISPs in the state to adhere to the principles of net neutrality and using large state contracts as incentives for net-neutrality adherence. The governor also mentioned the possibility of crafting legislation that encourages public utility districts to provide ISP and telecommunications services, while at the same time prohibiting government-owned ISP services from engaging in the restrictive practices that the absence of net-neutrality rules now provides.

None of this will be simple, of course, and much of it would likely be challenged in court. Its ultimate success, in other words, is far from certain. Still, given the stakes, and what such a victory would mean for the people of Washington, it’s worth a shot. The protections afforded by net neutrality rules are worth fighting for.

As The News Tribune’s Walker Orenstein reported this week, this isn’t merely a case of our Democrat governor talking big on a partisan issue to get headlines or raise his national stature. A number of Republicans in the state legislature are equally concerned with the implications of the net-neutrality rollback, and efforts to thwart it on a state level appear to have some level of bipartisan support.

That certainly lends credence to the effort as more than political bluster.

Not to be outdone, Ferguson announced Thursday that he intends to “file a legal challenge to the FCC’s decision to roll back net neutrality, along with attorneys general across the country.”

Most saw the move coming from a mile away. It’s straight out of the Ferguson playbook, written on the fly as Trump and his swamp rats attempt to rewrite our democracy.

"We are 5-0 against the Trump Administration because they often fail to follow the law when taking executive action,” a statement from Ferguson’s office read in part. “There is a strong legal argument that with this action, the federal government violated the Administrative Procedure Act — again.”

Time will tell if that’s an accurate legal assessment — I hope it is — but there’s no question it makes for a solid soundbite. It’s also one that will play well in future campaign ads, especially in a state where King County’s progressive voters — harboring no shortage of disdain for everything the Trump administration stands for — are usually the deciding factor in statewide races.

On Wednesday, Ferguson had a zinger of a retort to the suggestion that his motives were political.

“As long as we keep winning, it’s pretty clear it’s not political,” he told reporters.

That’s not necessarily true.

What is true is that — as long Inslee and Ferguson keep choosing battles worth waging on behalf of Washington voters — the distinction doesn’t really matter all that much.

It can be both. And that’s just fine.