Politics & Government

State lawmakers vow to push ahead with local net neutrality

This 2015 photo shows the entrance to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, D.C. Washington state lawmakers are considering introducing legislation to keep net neutrality alive in the Evergreen State.
This 2015 photo shows the entrance to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, D.C. Washington state lawmakers are considering introducing legislation to keep net neutrality alive in the Evergreen State. AP

With a vote looming Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, some lawmakers in Washington are trying to preserve protections for the state.

State Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, is planning to file legislation Wednesday that would undercut the federal panel by requiring internet service providers treat all web traffic equally. GOP Rep. Norma Smith of Clinton said Tuesday she plans to file a similar bill this week.

One major hurdle: The FCC plans to block states from making their own regulations that run counter to the federal plan. The move is intended in part to save telecom companies from dealing with a complex mishmash of state laws.

Hansen said he believes the FCC doesn’t have the authority to stop states from making their own rules without Congressional approval. If the state does pass his legislation, it might end up challenged in court. Hansen said that’s a necessary risk to avoid the plan by chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, to dismantle net neutrality with a vote of the five-member panel on Dec. 14.

“The same (rules) in effect right this second, they’re going to be in effect in Washington state in 2018 if I have anything to do with it,” Hansen said Tuesday.

Net neutrality rules stop internet providers from blocking certain websites or slowing the speed of rival sites or services. The regulations also stop companies from being able to charge customers more for internet fast lanes.

They have been in place since 2015.

Telecom companies say the current net neutrality regulations are onerous, slow innovation and discourage investment in broadband.

Some companies, including Comcast, have promised to adhere to at least some principals of net neutrality.

Comcast’s website says the company does not “block, slow down or discriminate against lawful content.”

Pai’s plan would require internet providers to disclose whether they block or slow web access, or create fast-lanes.

Still, state-level net neutrality protections have found some early backing in the Legislature. Lawmakers will convene in January for a 60-day legislative session.

State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, said he wants lawmakers “to do everything we can” to keep net neutrality laws in place for people in Washington state.

He said he also plans to introduce some type of legislation on the topic.

Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature after a victory in a recent state Senate election in Seattle’s Eastside suburbs.

Carlyle said the state might try other routes to pressure telecom companies to comply with net neutrality principles, such as being selective with lucrative government contracts.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, supports net neutrality as well. According to a news release issued by his office, he is expected to discuss ways the state can “promote the principles of net neutrality” in a media availability Wednesday.

Democrats have found common ground with the GOP in Washington state over internet regulations in the past. Many Republicans want to implement state-level internet data privacy rules that garnered broad support at the Capitol in the 2017 session.

That trend appears likely to continue. Smith said in an interview she hopes the state comes up with a spread of ideas to keep the Obama-era internet regulations in place. She also predicted support from many Republican colleagues.

Not all have been on board with internet regulations, though.

Efforts to pass legislation related to data privacy were halted by Senate Republican leadership in the 2017 session, when the GOP had a slim voting majority in the chamber.

Some Republicans are also likely to push back against the push for state net-neutrality regulations.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, a Republican from Ferndale who used to chair Carlyle’s committee, said he opposes state-level net neutrality laws.

He said the internet “has flourished” in America before net neutrality laws and in general because government hasn’t interfered dramatically. He said regulation decreases competition that drives “access for more people and more innovation.”

“The goal is to have the least interference from the government,” he said. “Keep the government out of it and let the technology continue to thrive.”

Ericksen also questioned whether a state government can or should enforce rules on the internet.

“This is not a state-level issue,” he said. “You cannot regulate the internet from Olympia.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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