In the wake of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal late last year, the hottest thing to do as a Democratic state legislator has been to introduce state-level net neutrality bills. Depending on which state you look at, the bills either ban anti-net-neutrality practices outright (unlikely to stand up to legal challenge), or simply prevent the state government from giving any contracts to companies that engage in anti-net-neutrality behavior.
In either case, the outcome of many of these bills being passed would be terrible for the telecoms companies. Not only would it hamper their efforts to charge consumers more or selectively favor services, it would also mean a horrible patchwork of regulations nationwide, and the only people that excites are lawyers.
So really, it’s no surprise that the telecoms lobbyists are now pushing hard for a federal “net neutrality bill” that would pre-empt any state or local efforts to regulate the internet. Telecoms firms have been pushing for some kind of internet legislation since day one, but the kind of bill they want to right is more about protecting the rights of telecoms companies than consumers. Passing a bill at the federal level while Republicans control the legislature is a priority for telecoms companies, since a change in FCC leadership could easily see net neutrality enforcement ramped up again. Passing a bill would make it impossible for the FCC to properly regulate net neutrality, which is a win for the internet providers.
In a blog post, USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter explains why internet companies shouldn’t have to deal with disparate state and local regulations. In many ways, he’s making a good point: a patchwork of legislation would make life hell for any internet provider who wants to compete nationally, and it’s a terrible way to manage an important utility.
But it’s hard to find any sympathy for the telecoms industry, because this is entirely a problem of their own making. When the FCC rolled back the net neutrality provisions last year, it was really saying that it lacked the legal standing to regulate internet providers as utilities. But in doing so, the FCC lost its ability to “pre-empt” state and local governments, opening the door for local representatives to legislate.
That passes the buck down to the telecoms companies themselves, who will have to sue if they want to prevent state and local net neutrality laws taking effect. That’s exactly what Spalter promised to do, saying “there is no question we will aggressively challenge state or municipal attempts to fracture the federal regulatory structure that made all this progress possible.”
But really, the only viable long-term solution for telecoms companies is to pass favorable legislation through Congress. Passing a bill is also the best way to keep net neutrality alive for consumers, so one way or another, the net neutrality issue is going to make its way to Capitol Hill. The only question is who wins when it gets there.