Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai takes a drink from a mug during an FCC meeting where the FCC voted to end net neutrality rules, Dec. 14, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai takes a drink from a mug during an FCC meeting where the FCC voted to end net neutrality rules, Dec. 14, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Editorial: Open internet now up to Congress, Legislature

With the FCC vote to end net neutrality, federal and state officials need to restore the rules.

By The Herald Editorial Board

When the decision came down in last week’s 3-2 vote by the Federal Communication Commission to dismantle the Open Internet rules that had been adopted by the FCC in 2015, no one noticed a change in online speeds or the cost of services.

But the “net neutrality” protections are gone, or are nearly so. The government will no longer regulate high-speed internet services as a utility. Adopted in 2015 as the Open Internet rules, the regulations prohibited internet service providers from blocking legal content and services, throttling data speed and setting set up paid “fast lanes” that favor their affiliates or those willing to pay more and shift the cost to consumers.

It will be weeks before the rule change becomes effective, and broadband providers — among them AT&T, Comcast and Verizon — are promising that customers’ online experiences won’t change. But the absence of FCC regulation meets that those providers will now have the ability to offer new services, such as tiers or “fast lanes” for certain content providers who will pass on the additional costs to their customers.

And the broadband providers wouldn’t have campaigned for the change, led by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — himself a former Verizon executive appointed by President Trump — unless they saw opportunity in reversing the Open Internet rules.

The FCC’s reversal of rules it adopted less than three years before was rushed and compromised by a public comment process that had been hacked by bogus “public” comments.

In November, the Pew Research Center found that of the 21.7 million public comments submitted to the FCC regarding the proposed change to net neutrality, only 6 percent were “unique,” meaning they were submitted from a single, verifiable email address. The other 94 percent were submitted multiple times, in some cases hundreds of thousands of times, Pew reported. And while a comment supporting net neutrality was the single-most duplicated comment at 2.8 million submissions, seven of the top 10 most frequently submitted comments argued against net neutrality, Pew’s analysis found.

That’s a stunning abuse of a public process that is meant to help guide government agencies’ decision-making, and that corruption of the public record should have — as we said in November — prompted the FCC to wait on its decision and make a second attempt to gauge public support for repealing or keeping the Open Internet rules.

Fortunately, representatives at the federal and state level have already begun work to reverse the FCC’s decision.

Sixteen Democratic senators, among them Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, a member of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology, announced their introduction of a Congressional Review Act that, with majority votes in Senate and House, would overturn the FCC’s ruling and restore the 2015 Open Internet rules. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, has signed on to companion legislation in the House.

“America has been a world leader in innovation in large part because we’ve benefited from a free and open internet, but we won’t remain at the top by adopting backward policies that hurt consumers,” DelBene said in a release following the FCC decision.

At the same time, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, joined by New York’s attorney general and others, announced a legal challenge to the FCC decision on the grounds that the FCC had violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

And state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, recognized as a leader in the Legislature on internet and technology issues, has drafted legislation she plans to introduce next month that would enforce net neutrality within Washington state.

Her legislation, House Bill 2284, would give the state Office of the Attorney General, the authority to enforce net neutrality in Washington state under the state’s Consumer Protection Act by prohibiting broadband providers in the state from blocking content, throttling data speeds and favoring some traffic over other traffic in exchange for compensation.

Smith, in a press conference with Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee, noted the promises of providers to protect net neutrality, but said those assurances weren’t enough. The regulations are necessary.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Smith said, introducing her legislation. “The repeal of existing net neutrality rules would threaten fairness and freedom on the internet, and would make it harder for entrepreneurs and small business owners to compete in the global marketplace.”

Because it can correct the FCC’s error nationwide, it’s best if Congress or the courts restore the Open Internet rules. But, assuming it can move more quickly, the state Legislature should at least extend those protections for Washington residents.

The nation’s broadband providers offer a service, one that is crucial to the nation’s economy and communication. But with ownership concentrated among a few large companies, federal and state governments have a role in representing the best interests of those companies’ customers.

The FCC has abdicated that responsibility.

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