How states are facing the net neutrality challenge

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State officials, including legislators and attorneys general, are responding to the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to reverse the agency’s prior stand on net neutrality. It’s too soon to tell what impact these efforts will have, but they reflect a strong opinion that many Americans share.

Restoring internet freedom

In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued its decision (based on a 3 to 2 vote) to reverse the net neutrality rules put into place under the prior administration in 2015. The FCC characterized the step as an act to restore internet freedom. The decision promotes an FCC “light touch” towards regulating internet service providers (ISPs), treating them as information services instead of public utilities. The change is meaningful because it theoretically allows ISPs to control network access and prioritize content based on which websites or services a consumer is using—the opposite of net neutrality. The FCC claims that fear of such actions by the ISPs is unwarranted, and that the reporting and transparency requirements of the new order address any consumer concerns.

Action by state attorneys general

Many proponents of net neutrality—including several leaders and politicians at the state level—immediately opposed the FCC’s move. While the new order specifically prohibits states from enacting any net neutrality provisions, the order itself can be subject to challenge.

Attorneys general from 21 states and the District of Columbia filed a petition for review with the District Court of Appeals in DC on January 16, 2018. The petition asks the court to set aside the order as “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” The attorneys general have been very vocal in opposing the rule. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called an open internet “critical to our democratic process when announcing the lawsuit. “The repeal of net neutrality would turn internet service providers into gatekeepers—allowing them to put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online,” he said. Schneiderman’s office is also investigating whether any public comments relied upon by the FCC in their decision-making used New Yorkers’ names and identities without those citizens’ consent, which would amount to fake comments.

Further steps at the state level

Several state governors have also committed to contesting the FCC’s order. Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed an executive order that requires state contractors to adhere to net neutrality guidelines: “the service provider must not block lawful content, throttle, impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of internet content, engage in paid prioritization, or unreasonably interfere or disadvantage the users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband internet access service.” Montana’s governor has been joined by others, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy. Cuomo thanked Murphy on Facebook and added that he hopes more states will “join us soon in protecting a free and open Internet for all.”