Massachusetts Lawmakers Push State Solution to FCC Net Neutrality Decision

Dozens of legislators are pushing for a proposal that would counter the Federal Communications Commissions reversal of Obama-era internet protections at the state level.

by Christian M. Wade, The Eagle-Tribune / April 2, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — BOSTON, Mass. — Lawmakers are weighing a Massachusetts version of net-neutrality to fill a void created as federal regulators roll back Obama-era rules designed to level the internet playing field.

A proposal by a special Senate committee Wednesday, backed by dozens of lawmakers, seeks to promote net neutrality through state contracts and protect consumer privacy by barring internet service providers from collecting, using or disseminating personal data without consent.

It would also create a registry of service providers who do business in Massachusetts, and prohibit practices such as "throttling" down the speed of some internet content while prioritizing content from those who pay more.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, a member of the committee, said the intent is to ensure consumers "have fair and unfettered access to the internet."

Tarr said service providers have said they won't constrain services in Massachusetts in the absence of the federal neutrality rules, but state-level safeguards will give consumers added protection. He said local rules will "even the playing ground."

"We're trying to get out ahead of this," said Tarr. "We're trying to make sure that people in Massachusetts don't suffer as a result."

The bill is a patchwork of proposals filed over the past several months, and includes provisions of a bill filed by Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, and Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, that would bar internet service providers from "blocking, throttling or paid prioritization" for internet access.

Net neutrality rules put in place by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 barred internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from slowing or blocking customer access to apps and sites, or favoring their own sites and apps.

Led by a new chairman chosen by President Donald Trump, the FCC in December voted to roll back those rules and relinquish oversight of internet service providers to the Federal Trade Commission. The new rules are expected to go into effect this spring.

In January, Attorney General Maura Healey joined nearly two-dozen other states in suing to block the FCC's action. The outcome of their lawsuit is pending.

Democrats including Massachusetts Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren are seeking to undo the move in Congress.

Governors in five states — Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Montana and Vermont — have also signed executive orders related to net-neutrality issues.

At least 30 states have proposed similar measures in the past year but so far only Oregon and Washington have passed legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The telecom industry argues that net neutrality rules undermine investment in broadband and introduce uncertainty about what are acceptable business practices. Major U.S. telecoms, and the Trump administration, have threatened to sue to prevent state and local net neutrality laws from taking effect.

"There shouldn't be a state-by-state patchwork of differing laws and regulations," said Matt Mincieli, northeast region executive director for TechNet, which advocates for technology companies. "This has traditionally been under the federal government, and it's going to be hard to regulate at a state level."

Mincieli said the cost of added regulations will force internet providers to hold off investments on new products, which will ultimately hurt consumers.

"Tech companies are going to have to pull back to figure out a set of rules specific to each state," he said. "They'll end up playing defense."

Tim Wilkerson, vice president and general counsel of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, said net neutrality should be dealt with by Congress, not a patchwork of state laws.

He said the Senate proposal rolled out Wednesday will "do very little to protect consumers while dealing an unfair hand to an industry that prides itself on service, innovation and growth."

"The best solution is a uniform national law that protects consumers and allows a level playing field for internet providers," he said.

Net neutrality advocates say the FCC decision hurts innovation and make it harder to crack down on internet providers who engage in deceptive practices.

Absent regulation, service providers will be able to slow down websites and features -- such as video streaming -- or speed up websites and services for customers willing to pay more, according to the advocates.

Consumer advocates say concerns about internet privacy have been fueled by recent data breaches and revelations that Facebook gave user data to a third-party which in turn used it to help Trump’s presidential campaign.

"We are asked to believe that the internet will be better without consumer protections like net neutrality or privacy," said Deirdre Cummings, with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. "It should obvious from the last few weeks at least this is not true. We need rights and protections."

©2018 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.