Well, they did it. Trump’s Verizon puppet at the FCC–after a campaign of disinformation and downright dishonesty–got his (and Verizon’s) fondest wish: they voted yesterday to dispense with Obama-era rules protecting Net Neutrality.
If you are one of the many Americans who is unfamiliar with this policy, or unsure why it matters, Vox has a comprehensive explanation; if you have less time, Paul Krugman recently offered a concise analogy. Asked for his thoughts on the impending vote, and on the policy, he responded that
… for a democratic society, and also just for a society that is open to new ideas, level playing fields are really important. One of the great unifying things that we did very early on in our country’s history was to establish a postal service, where the cost of sending a letter was the same no matter who was sending it, no matter how far you were sending it…
We’ve done very, very well with providers not allowed to discriminate among different users. This is something that’s very much not broken. Why try to fix it?
This assault on Internet equality is just one of the myriad Trump Administration efforts to remake our country into a plutocracy–to make America “great” for the powerful and wealthy.
It gets harder and harder to keep track of the wholesale de-regulation that Trump insists will unleash the productivity of the market–the rollbacks of environmental regulations that keep our air breathable and our water drinkable, the withdrawal of measures to protect students from fraudulent private colleges and sexual assaults, reversal of regulations preventing fossil fuel companies from despoiling protected lands….I teach public policy, so following all of these efforts to eviscerate the rules of fair play (and not-so-incidentally, anything Obama did or favored) is part of my job–and I can’t begin to keep up.
Before the election of this monumentally ignorant man, I was not a huge fan of robust federalism, or the argument that state “laboratories of democracy” would, or at least could, constrain unwise federal policies. As I’ve watched sensible state governments respond to Trumpism by protecting immigrants, decriminalizing marijuana, enacting stringent environmental protections and demonstrating that raising taxes actually promotes economic growth, I’ve warmed to the wisdom of that argument.
On the eve of an expected vote by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back crucial net neutrality rules, Gov. Jay Inslee joined Attorney General Bob Ferguson, legislators, and business leaders to announce state plans to preserve an open internet and protect Washington consumers from internet companies that are not transparent about costs or services.
Inslee wrote a letter to the FCC earlier this month, in which he made a strong case for the retention of current policy.
All Americans, as a matter of principle, should enjoy equal access to the educational, social and economic power of the internet. Ensuring this important technology remains free and unfettered is critical both to our personal freedoms and to our country’s economy,”
Making Washington State’s announcement, Inslee conceded that the FCC’s vote will preempt states from ensuring full net neutrality. But he said states can take a number of steps to promote an open internet and strengthen protections for consumers–and Washington intends to take them:
Hold companies to their commitments not to block websites, throttle speeds, or impose prioritization pricing
- Direct the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to establish a process for ISPs to certify that they will not engage in practices inconsistent with net neutrality principles.
- Limit state-conferred benefits to ISPs that have made such certifications.
- Limit applicability of UTC pole attachment rules to ISPs that are net neutral.
- Review other state-conferred benefits such as easements and taxes.
Leverage the state’s power as a large purchaser of ISP and telecommunications services
- Use the state government’s role as a big customer, and our ability to establish state master contracts used by localities, to incentivize Washington companies to adhere to net neutrality principles.
- Pursue regulatory and legislative action to award contracts to vendors that meet net neutral business requirements.
- Lead the exploration of a multi-state purchasing cooperative to procure internet service from providers that adhere to net neutrality principles.
Hold companies accountable for warranties made to consumers
- Create a state-wide internet speed test. This will allow Washingtonians to test their own broadband speed at home, and submit the test to help appropriate state agencies determine what internet speeds consumers are receiving and where companies may be blocking or throttling.
- Collaborate with legislators to strengthen our consumer protection laws to include the principles of net neutrality.
Encourage new entrants into the currently concentrated ISP market
- Pursue legislation authorizing public utility districts and rural and urban port districts to provide retail ISP and telecommunications services.
- Prohibit government-owned ISP services, such as municipal broadband networks, from engaging in blocking, throttling, or priority pricing for Internet services.
As one Washington state legislator asserted, state governments have the right to prevent a “reckless and power-intoxicated federal government from handing over access to the free flow of information to the largest corporations on this planet.”
If other states follow in Washington’s path, they will do more than protect an essential platform for American democratic discourse.
They’ll make a federalism fan out of this skeptic.