On Tuesday, net neutrality bills are getting a public hearing at the State House, and it’s a good opportunity for members of the public to speak or show support for an effort that could preserve net neutrality in Rhode Island. You can also sign an online petition in support, here.
Net neutrality is the excellent idea that wherever and however you get internet access, you should be able to access every part of the Internet with no obstacles.
For example, your internet service company shouldn’t be able to block or impede customers from accessing some websites and apps. Your phone company shouldn’t be able to stop you from accessing the internet when they detect that you’re using your cellphone as an intermediary to provide internet service to another device. Corporations shouldn’t start telling you that the “plan” you’re on only lets you access part of the internet, so that you have to pay them a bigger fee to access the rest of the Internet that we now enjoy.
Without net neutrality, you’re likely to have a hard time seeing alternative websites. Big-name sites want you to experience faster load times when interacting with their content than when you’re visiting smaller rival sites, and they will want to pay off your phone or internet company so that alternative sites are impeded from connecting with you at the same speed. In the internet’s early days when techies were in control, net neutrality was automatically considered a good thing, and you could explore any part of the internet you wanted to without your internet service provider standing in the way. But now that corporations have taken over much of the Internet, they want to use their power to steer you towards interacting with their content and messages rather than interacting with what their rivals are saying. We shouldn’t let any corporation or government selectively impede or block people’s access to the internet.
However, the Federal Communications Commission, under its new Trump-appointed chair, decided in December to repeal the federal net neutrality rules. The FCC decision came shortly after the release of a high-quality poll, which gave voters arguments on both sides of the issue and found that 83% of registered voters preferred keeping net neutrality rules, including 75% of Republicans.
So the fight to preserve net neutrality is now being pursued vigorously at the state level.
At Tuesday’s public hearing, Rhode Island has the opportunity to join a growing list of states which have passed laws and executive orders in the last couple of months supporting net neutrality. Two RI bills on net neutrality will be up for public comment Tuesday afternoon, both of them reflecting approaches that other states have recently adopted.
One Rhode Island bill, H7422, says that cities, towns, and the RI state government must refuse to purchase internet service from any company that doesn’t respect net neutrality, if there is an alternative internet service provider that respects net neutrality for all its customers. So if a company takes away net neutrality from any of its customers, it will lose its chance to bid on contracts to provide internet service to the government. Montana, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii and Vermont have recently enacted similar rules by executive order, and there may soon be an actual law in Oregon that does the same, if Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signs it as many expect. Passing it in Rhode Island would be a good step forward.
Another RI bill to be considered in the hearing on Tuesday takes a stronger approach. H7076 not only bans companies that violate net neutrality from getting government contracts for internet service, but also directs the RI Department of Business Regulation to require every single Internet service company to follow net neutrality when providing Internet service in Rhode Island. The state of Washington has recently passed a law that does this, and Rhode Island should pass a similar law as well.
The battle for net neutrality is being fought on other fronts as well. Some cities and towns are setting up their own municipally-owned broadband systems that will preserve net neutrality. Also, there is now a group of local officials, Mayors for Net Neutrality, who are pledging to refuse contracts with net-neutrality-violating companies; sign here to encourage your mayor or council leader to join. 50 US senators (the Democrats plus Republican Susan Collins) and 158 Democratic House members are trying to restore net neutrality in Congress, and all four Rhode Island members of Congress have signed on. The RI Attorney General joined New York and 20 other states in suing the federal government to try to get courts to overturn the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality. In turn, lawyers for companies like Verizon are likely to attempt to overturn state net neutrality laws in court. It appears that all the state bills I’ve mentioned have at least a chance of being upheld in the courts, with the bills focusing on government contracts having a particularly strong case.
If you’re free Tuesday, please consider coming to the hearing on these net neutrality bills in Room 203 of the State House, which will start sometime after 4:30. Even just being there, showing support without speaking, will help. And any member of the public can take their turn to speak up to support net neutrality, even if it’s just briefly.
Also, you can sign this online petition in support of the Rhode Island bills.