The Federal Communications Commission’s decision to repeal network neutrality rules may be one of the worst things to come out of Donald Trump’s Washington. And that’s saying something.
If the repeal stands, Internet providers like Comcast will have the power to slow down or speed up websites as they see fit — developing Internet “fast lanes” and charging handsome fees for access. That means the next Netflix or news startup could be stopped in its tracks if it is unable to afford the speed vital to online success.
It’s critical, then, that Massachusetts and like-minded states mount a meaningful defense of Net neutrality — moving swiftly to protect the digital pipelines that feed the innovation economy and allow unfettered access to the information and ideas that fuel democracy.
Attorney General Maura Healey has already staked out an important leading role in a multistate lawsuit against the FCC. But that needs to be followed by action in the Massachusetts Legislature and elsewhere.
Lawmakers here and in several other states, including New York and California, have proposed measures forbidding telecoms from blocking or slowing down access to certain sites — or giving paid priority to others. Under the Massachusetts legislation, any company that violates Net neutrality would be subject to antitrust enforcement by the attorney general’s office.
“We look at this as an opportunity to put Massachusetts on the map as stepping up, and pushing back on the Net neutrality rollback,” says state Senator Barbara L’Italien, an Andover Democrat and lead sponsor of the Bay State bill. This sort of approach could run into legal and practical problems, however. The FCC’s order blocks state and local governments from creating their own Net neutrality rules, on the grounds that providers would have trouble complying with a patchwork of state laws governing an Internet that knows no borders.
L’Italien, to her credit, acknowledges the legal concerns about state-level preemption of federal power and says she is open to other approaches.
The most promising may be found in forthcoming legislation from state Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, who wants to use the power of the public purse. Massachusetts state and local governments spend tens of millions of dollars on Internet services.
Eldridge’s bill would bar them from contracting with Internet service providers that violate Net neutrality. Similar measures are before the legislatures in New York and Rhode Island. If state legislation doesn’t force providers to do the right thing, local governments may have to step in as the last guarantor of Net neutrality, building municipal broadband networks that protect Internet freedom.
Mayors and city councils will have to tread carefully. Some of the cities and towns that have already built out networks — from Provo, Utah, to Burlington, Vt. — have run into significant financial trouble. The networks are expensive to build, and operators need to quickly lock in a solid customer base if they hope to pay off the debt over a reasonable period of time. But if it’s done carefully, it can be done well. And solvency, if a necessity, is not the only concern.
At stake is nothing less than the health of our open society. If the federal government isn’t going to protect it, then state and local government must.