ISPs Push Back on Rhode Island Net Neutrality Proposals

Internet service providers have been lobbying to stop proposals that would impose requirements on the services they deliver.

by Patrick Anderson, The Providence Journal / March 22, 2018
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(TNS) — Internet service providers are promising to maintain a free and open internet. They just don't want Rhode Island lawmakers to try to make them to do it.

Telecommunications and cable companies this week mobilized to stop two bills in the General Assembly that would use state government purchasing power to try to keep soon-to-expire federal "net neutrality" rules in place.

After successfully lobbying last year to end net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission, the industry is arguing at state houses around the country against proposals such as the ones in Rhode Island.

"Regardless of any legal mandates, broadband Internet service providers will not block or throttle lawful Internet traffic or engage in unfair discrimination against lawful content, applications, or devices," wrote Matthew Brill, a lawyer representing the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, in testimony to the House Corporations Committee.

"At the same time, NECTA opposes any effort by Rhode Island or other states to establish their own net neutrality regimes because state legislation is unnecessary and would be counterproductive and unlawful."

Industry and pro-net neutrality lobbyists, some flying in from Washington, D.C., crammed into a House Corporations Committee meeting Tuesday to testify about net neutrality bills from Providence Democratic Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who is also running for lieutenant governor; and another sponsored by members of House leadership including Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton.

"Given how internet traffic flows between, among and across states, a patchwork of state laws attempting to regulate how content and services are delivered over the internet would simply be unworkable," wrote Jonathan Banks, senior vice president at US Telecom.

But net neutrality supporters, like Chad Marlow of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said that without new laws like the Rhode Island proposals, the future of the internet could look more like the censored live stream of a 2007 Pearl Jam concert.

"In the absence of net neutrality in the United States and elsewhere we have seen content slowed and blocked based upon the political views and business interests of [internet service provider] companies," Marlow told the Corporations Committee.

As examples, Marlow offered AT&T's apology after Pearl Jam's criticism of then-President George W. Bush was blocked from a web stream; Verizon rejecting abortion-rights group Naral Pro-Choice from a text message program; and all of the major telecom companies blocking Google Wallet to help their own payment systems.

Net neutrality refers to the concept that internet service providers cannot block, slow down or speed up different content over the web, for either political or financial considerations.

The Federal Communications Commission decision to end the Obama-era net neutrality rules, effective April 23, also preempted states from trying to regulate the internet on their own.

The Rhode Island net neutrality bills from Regunberg and Kennedy skirt that issue by only targeting government contracts. They would prevent state agencies or municipalities from buying internet services, including mobile phone data, from providers that don't honor net neutrality rules.

Regunberg said that although the two bills are very similar, his version features narrower language meant to avoid any conflicts with federal law.

But despite five members of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's leadership team sponsoring the Kennedy bill, it may face an uphill battle getting a vote.

"Speaker Mattiello believes that net neutrality is essentially regulated by the federal government and there is little ability for the state to affect this issue," Larry Berman, spokesman for the speaker, wrote in an email. "He has spoken to internet providers and they have assured him they have no plans of changing their net neutrality policies, so he believes this issue is not imminent. However, the bill was heard by the Corporations Committee and he will confer with Chairman [Robert] Jacquard and the committee members to review the testimony."

©2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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