Politics & Government

In defiance of FCC, Washington’s lawmakers vote to uphold net neutrality rules

This June 19, 2015, photo, shows the entrance to the Federal Communications Commission building in Washington.
This June 19, 2015, photo, shows the entrance to the Federal Communications Commission building in Washington. AP

Net neutrality might live on in Washington state.

On a 35-14 vote Tuesday, the state Senate sent a bill to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk that would implement a local version of Obama-era regulations requiring internet service providers treat all web traffic equally.

The measure also flies in the face of Federal Communications Commission officials, who repealed the national rules last year and said states can’t implement their own.

Net neutrality regulations stop internet service providers from blocking or slowing down lawful internet content or offering faster speeds to certain companies over others based on how much they pay — such as allowing Netflix to stream better than Hulu.

House Bill 2282 got support from every Democrat and many Republicans, who said it was necessary to ensure corporations wouldn’t hamper the free flow of information in a Democratic society.

“States must act to protect the internet,” said state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, in a floor speech Tuesday.

Inslee, a Democrat and supporter of net neutrality, celebrated the bill’s passage on Tuesday on social media. He is expected to sign it into law.

Others in the GOP called it anti-business and a hit to innovation that could bring faster internet speeds and better access to everyone. Some of the area’s top internet service providers called the state’s efforts misguided.

CenturyLink, in a statement provided by spokeswoman Kerry Zimmer, said the internet should be regulated at the federal level for consistency. The company “supports the ability of all of its customers to access lawful content through the device of their choice and with a consistent and predictable set of principles outlined by the FCC,” according to the statement.

“Consumers and businesses require a seamless and predictable internet experience,” Zimmer said. “For that to happen, every email, application and video should not be subject to multiple state jurisdictions.”

The bill marks a direct challenge to the FCC, which said it blocked states from implementing local net neutrality rules when they were repealed nationally.

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield told The News Tribune and The Olympian he wouldn’t comment specifically on Washington’s bill but pointed to language from the commission’s order that preempts states.

Advocates of stopping local governments from making their own rules, including FCC chairman Ajit Pai, have said the commission believes the internet is best regulated by a central authority and not through a patchwork of rules passed by various states.

Key state lawmakers said they believe only Congress has the authority to stop them from reinstating net neutrality, potentially setting up a court clash over Washington’s measure.

Drew Hansen, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island who sponsored HB 2282, said in an interview Tuesday he believes the net neutrality rules will help small businesses and nonprofits who could suffer if they have to pay for so-called internet “fast lanes.”

If net neutrality rules are gone federally, “we want them at the state level,” Hansen said. The House passed his bill 93-5 earlier this month.

Washington’s lawmakers may have a solid legal argument.

A federal court in 2016 ruled against the FCC when the commission tried to block state laws that set limits on the expansion of municipal broadband.

Washington’s legislators are not the only ones challenging the federal rules.

Lawmakers in 26 states have introduced measures requiring internet service providers to uphold a variety of net neutrality principles, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Washington is trying other tactics to ensure net neutrality laws remain in place should Hansen’s bill be shot down in the courts.

Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson is part of a 22-state lawsuit filed to reverse the FCC’s repeal. State lawmakers also have introduced measures to coax internet providers into staying net neutral, such as barring companies that break the rules from using utility poles.

Still, Hansen’s bill represents the most direct attempt to regulate the internet from Olympia. Some in the GOP chafed at the effort.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, a Republican from Ferndale, said net neutrality rules at the federal level were an example of government overreach that stifled innovation and expansion of services.

In a floor speech Tuesday, Ericksen said, “Internet services in America have grown and thrived with minimum government involvement and regulation.”

He said he believes Washington’s legislation is less onerous than the previous federal law, but that companies are likely to sue the state and that “we will lose that litigation.”

“The reality is you’re going to go to court and you’re going to pay money,” he said. Ericksen is the top Republican on the Senate’s Energy, Environment and Technology Committee.

Leland Kim, a spokesman for AT&T, said in an email the company prefers a federal solution and noted they wanted to have a “dialogue” about paid prioritization. New technologies such as self-driving cars, the spokesman said, could be helped by a “higher level of internet performance.”

Comcast did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company has previously pledged generally to adhere to net neutrality principles.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein