Guest view: Net neutrality needs to be the law of the land

Guest view: Net neutrality needs to be the law of the land

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The free flow Information is the ultimate equalizer, and it’s a value as American as motherhood and apple pie. While the internet brings us more than its fair share of misinformation, the cure for this is more and better information.

That’s why protecting an open internet is so crucial.

Big broadband providers and big tech gatekeepers should not have the ability to manipulate how we get our information online in order to fatten their profits by blocking competitors or driving consumers to their favored products and services. Protecting consumers through smart legislation is the only way to achieve this.

I am the chief operating officer of a small ISP in Helena and my business partners and I vocally opposed the Federal Communications Commission’s attempts to remove net neutrality in 2017. We continue to fight for keeping and open and unrestricted internet.

In 2018, we were one of only a handful of ISPs who supported Gov. Steve Bullock’s executive order making net neutrality a requirement of contracting with the State of Montana. We appreciate his leadership on this issue and continue to be amazed at the short-sightedness of critics who fight against common-sense regulation.

But this approach — a patchwork quilt, state-by-state mishmash of various requirements and sometimes weird conflicts, isn’t helpful either. It’s pretty easy for our company to comply for now, as we only serve customers in Montana — but that won’t be the case forever, and there are other small ISPs who cross state lines and are faced with competing regulations that make it harder to serve customers well. It’s not efficient, and it’s just plain stupid.

Without net neutrality protections, consumers risk being forced to pay additional fees for services like streaming (on top of the fees the streaming services charge) or social media (on top of being the product for those companies) and many other sites. Imagine being told that you can’t go to the website for your local bookstore because Amazon worked a deal with Verizon or Google to drive all the book site requests to Amazon’s online store. Net neutrality prevents this from happening, and it’s why we need a nationwide law, today.

For more than a decade, progressives have led the fight in Washington, D.C., for net neutrality rules from the FCC. Instead, we’ve gotten the usual Beltway two-step: Every step forward effort has been followed by a loss in the courts or a reversal by a successive Republican administration. Last October, a federal court affirmed the FCC’s most recent repeal of open internet rules. This continued fight — with a win here and a loss there — is good business for lobbyists, but it’s exhausting and ridiculous for the rest of us.

The only way permanently protect the open internet for all Americans is through bipartisan legislation.

House Democrats passed a bill last year to do this, but of course, it stalled in the Senate. That bill definitely gave very strong protections to consumers, which is needed — but it also reclassified broadband providers under the rules and regulations of 1930s telephone laws. And let’s be clear — your internet is not the same as your great-grandfather’s phone.

This well-intentioned but not well-thought-out approach means that even our company, a tiny ISP that upholds net neutrality and is just trying to provide our customers great internet service, would face significant new hurdles before we could offer new services or change our network management technologies. We would face a massive pile of new reporting, red-tape, and money to lawyers and consultants, all of which diverts us from expanding into new areas and serving more customers, which is a negative all around. That bill is basically a case study in unintended consequences combined with overzealous advocacy.

The current situation is that net neutrality is caught in the valley of death between the two political parties. The conservatives claim that any regulation will impede business, while the progressives see the need for a bill but have embraced an approach that is dead on arrival in the Senate. In the end, consumers are the ones who lose, because we don’t have these protections.

It’s time for members of both parties, in both the House and the Senate, to put down their battle-axes and instead start hammering out a new piece of legislation. Democrats must insist on clear, enforceable rules against the blocking, throttling, or preferences to any and all internet traffic by ISPs, big tech giants, or any other entity. No exception. No loopholes. And so long as this is included, they should be pragmatic enough to get it passed. Protecting net neutrality should be the law of the land.

Most importantly, it can be passed and enforced as its own thing, without the ridiculous rules and regulations developed for telephones and railroads in the early part of the last century. In fact, majorities on both sides support this — it’s just the foolish posturing and purity tests that are blocking a solution.

Montana has a long legacy of leading on issues like this, and our senators, Jon Tester and Steve Daines, have an opportunity to offer bipartisan leadership. Our senators should work to break the gridlock and finally secure permanent, nationwide protections for the open internet.

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