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Washington becomes first state to approve net neutrality rules

Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks after signing a net neutrality bill.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Setting up a likely legal fight with the Trump administration, Washington has become the first state to enact its own net neutrality requirements after U.S. regulators repealed Obama-era rules designed to keep the internet an even playing field.

“We know that when D.C. fails to act, Washington state has to do so,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday before signing the bipartisan measure that bans internet providers from blocking content or interfering with online traffic.

The new law also requires internet providers to disclose information about their management practices, performance and commercial terms. Violations would be enforceable under the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

The Federal Communications Commission voted in December to gut U.S. rules meant to prevent broadband companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from exercising more control over what people watch and see on the internet. The regulations also prohibited providers from favoring some sites and apps over others.

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Because the FCC prohibited state laws from contradicting its decision, opponents of the Washington law have said it would lead to lawsuits. Inslee said he was confident of its legality, saying “the states have a full right to protect their citizens.”

As he has done frequently over the last year, Inslee took aim at President Trump’s administration, saying the FCC’s decision was “a clear case of the Trump administration favoring powerful corporate interests over the interests of millions of Washingtonians and Americans.”

Although several states introduced similar measures this year seeking to protect net neutrality, so far only Oregon and Washington have passed legislation. But Oregon’s measure wouldn’t put any new requirements on internet providers. It would stop state agencies from buying internet service from any company that blocks or prioritizes specific content or apps, starting in 2019.

Washington was among more than 20 states and the District of Columbia that sued in January to try to block the FCC’s action. There are also efforts by Democrats to undo the move in Congress.

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Governors in five states — Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New York and Vermont — have signed executive orders related to net neutrality issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Montana’s order, for instance, bars telecommunications companies from receiving state contracts if they interfere with internet traffic or favor higher-paying sites or apps.

Big telecom companies have said net neutrality rules could undermine investment in broadband and introduce uncertainty about what are acceptable business practices. Net neutrality advocates say the FCC decision harms innovation and makes it harder for the government to crack down on internet providers that act against consumer interests.

The FCC’s new rules are expected to go into effect this spring. Washington’s law will take effect in June.

Ron Main, executive director of the Broadband Communications Assn. of Washington, which opposed the bill, said the cable companies his group represents have already pledged not to block legal content or engage in paid prioritization.

He said that because the internet is an interstate service, only Congress can pass legislation “that gives all consumers and internet services providers the clarity and consistency needed for a free and open internet.”

“There should not be a state-by-state patchwork of differing laws and regulations,” he said in a written statement.


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