States Fight to Safeguard Open Internet Against FCC Net Neutrality Ruling

By Sameer Rao Jan 12, 2018

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted along party lines last month to eliminate net neutrality protections, forcing media justice advocates and other supporters of an open and equitable internet to pursue legal and legislative avenues to oppose the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. The New York Times explored one of these strategies—state-level measures to stop internet service providers (ISPs) from abusing connection speeds and content—in an article published yesterday (January 11).

The Times reports that state representatives and senators in California, Washington, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Nebraska introduced net neutrality bills in the weeks following the FCC’s ruling. One of two bills introduced in Washington state came from Republican state congressperson Norma Smith, who told The Times, "This is not a partisan issue here. Everyone is concerned about equal access to the internet and being able to participate in the 21st-century economy."

The Times warns that these measures may not be able to circumvent federal enforcement. The full 539-page FCC order, which the agency released on January 4, says that "states may not adopt their own transparency requirements, whether labeled as such or under the guise of ‘consumer protection.’"

But that provision is not detering lawmakers who see the FCC as prioritizing corporate interests over people. "People should not be intimidated by the FCC simply saying it has pre-emptive authority [to invalidate any state ruling], and we need to dig into the sources of that claim, which are a lot weaker than the FCC makes it out to be," Washington state representative Drew Hansen, the Democrat who introduced the other Washington bill, told The Times.

State legislators and advocates may soon get some help on the federal level from United States senators. Reuters reported Tuesday (January 9) that Senate Democrats have enough support to force a vote that could override the FCC’s order. That vote, which Reuters says has not yet been scheduled, would also have to be approved in the House and be signed off on by President Donald Trump. The president appointed current FCC chairman Ajit Pai—the person who introduced the anti-net neutrality order—to lead the commission last year.

Many digital justice groups support net neutrality as a powerful safeguard for activists and communities of color.

“Movements fighting for rights and justice for [oppressed] groups will suffer, too, from the slowing down and blocking of content and the preferential treatment that paid content is likely to receive over content that is free and available to the public," Center for Media Justice executive director Malkia Cyril wrote after the FCC’s ruling in December. "What happens to the Black voters of Alabama who surely used the open internet to turn the tide in that race? Or the #MeToo movement that used the open internet to speak truth to power? The movements against police violence and for a clean Dream Act will all suffer if they don’t have a fair and unbiased platform on which to speak."