Net neutrality supporter holding a placard

States draw up legislation to protect net neutrality at local level

Image credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Representatives of Nebraska, California and other states are in the process of drafting legislation to continue protecting net neutrality following the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voting to roll back federal regulations.

Net neutrality is the concept that all web traffic is treated the same, regardless of the source, application or content. It is often described by its supporters as the “first amendment of the internet”.

Legislation introduced by the Obama administration came into force in 2015 to enshrine net neutrality into law, classifying internet service providers as “common carriers” and hence forbidding ISPs to prioritise, deprioritise or block content.

Since his appointment as FCC Chairman by President Donald Trump in January 2017, Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon Communications, has been working to repeal this legislation. Pai argues that the regulations stifle innovation. Federal government should not be responsible for regulating the internet, he said.

The process of repealing the Obama-era regulations has been controversial, largely due to reports of millions of fraudulent comments submitted during the public consultation on the policy. The FCC has not taken action to investigate these reports and proceeded with a 3-2 vote to repeal the regulations in December 2017.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman – who is spearheading an investigation into identity theft during the consultation – is among the most high-profile figures to denounce the FCC’s vote to repeal the regulations. The vote could be “illegal”, Schneiderman said.

Since the FCC’s vote, representatives at the state level have been taking action to continue to protect net neutrality even after federal protections are rolled back.

Adam Morfeld, a Nebraska State Senator, has introduced the Internet Neutrality Act, which is intended to restore net neutrality regulations within the state. According to the bill, ISPs will be forbidden from slowing down or prioritising traffic.

“For me, this is an economic development and consumer protection bill,” Morfeld told a local newspaper. “The internet drives the economy now, and it’s critical people have open and fair access to the internet.”

With a tech sector emerging in Nebraska, Morfeld said, it is vital to protect internet speeds and access across the state.

Last week, Californian legislators introduced a bill which proposes to reclassify ISPs as public utilities, block companies that do not practice net neutrality from using telecommunications poles or acquiring government contracts.

In a statement, Scott Wiener, the Democratic state senator for San Francisco, said: “We won’t let the Trump-led FCC dismantle our right to a free and open internet. We won’t let them create a system where internet providers can favour web sites and services based on who pays more money.”

Morfeld and Wiener are following actions by other state representatives, including those for Massachusetts and Washington, in proposing similar local level regulations to continue to uphold net neutrality despite the FCC ruling.

However, the final text for the “Restoring Internet Freedom” order, published by the FCC last week includes details which could block attempts by states to continue protecting net neutrality.

“Allowing state or local regulation of broadband access service could impair the provision of such service by requiring each ISP to comply with a patchwork of separate and potentially conflicting requirements across all of the different jurisdictions in which it operates,” the ruling says.

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