‘Net Neutrality’ Fight Moves to States

Published August 1, 2006

The bitter fight over “network neutrality” regulations has mainly been a matter for national legislators, but the debate over how Internet broadband is managed could soon be coming to a state capitol near you.

A failed amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives and the wariness of Senate Telecom Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) suggest an uncertain prognosis for federal action on net neutrality before the end of the year. As a result, many activists are taking their case to friendly state lawmakers during the 2007 legislative cycle, in hopes of finding allies willing to transform the concept into state law.

Two influential state officials jumped into the net neutrality fray in late June. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D) sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee urging them to adopt net neutrality regulations and enforcement mechanisms, stating, “state Attorneys General and private parties should also be authorized to bring civil actions in any U.S. District Court to enforce these provisions.” California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) has also expressed support for net neutrality principles.

‘Priority Lanes’

Net neutrality became a top-tier telecom issue when Internet providers such as Verizon and AT&T recently hinted at the possibility of developing additional-fee “priority lanes” as part of market-based pricing plans designed to pay for billions of dollars in broadband improvements.

This prospect has united large Web sites, including Google and eBay, with liberal advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org and Common Cause, in an effort to prohibit owners of Internet servers from prioritizing certain transactions. With net neutrality rules in place, the major Web sites hope to insulate their existing business models from future competitive pressures. The advocacy organizations perceive net neutrality as a critical “way in” to increase government control over the Internet, since efforts to tax the Internet have largely failed.

Scare Tactics

To fire up the grassroots in favor of a technical issue far removed from the everyday consumer’s world, supporters of greater Internet regulation have conjured foreboding “what-if” scenarios. Freepress.net, for example, warned, “corporate greed threatens to bring the Internet’s promise of advanced communications for all to a halt.” MoveOn.org claimed, “Congress is now pushing a law that would end the free and open Internet as we know it.”

By and large, groups in favor of limited government and free markets have dismissed these arguments, noting (1) businesses either serve consumers’ interests by marketing useful and appealing products or face extinction through competition; and (2) the Internet has flourished and will continue to do so without the imposition of onerous government regulations.

Congress seems to be heeding their message. In June the House voted 269-152 against adding a net neutrality amendment, offered by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), to a major cable television franchise reform bill. When asked by a National Journal reporter about the worry of creating a second-tier Internet by not passing net neutrality provisions, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) called the argument “bogus,” saying “you will not see a second-tier Internet.”

Piggybacking Efforts

Just as a rash of energy windfall-profit tax proposals surfaced at the state level after receiving attention at the federal level, some state legislators are taking tentative steps into the net neutrality ring.

California state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) introduced on February 23 a pro-net neutrality joint resolution that calls on Congress and the president to “preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet.”

As proponents attempted to attach net neutrality to the federal cable franchising reform bill, activists began to connect the issue with state franchise bills being considered around the country. One BlueJersey.net blogger on June 9 encouraged others in “asking [New Jersey] Governor [Jon] Corzine [D] to hold up the signing into law of the state-wide cable franchise legislation” until Corzine received net neutrality assurances from telecom companies.

State Campaign Issue

While most governors have remained mum on the topic, some are using net neutrality as a campaign issue. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) delivered his message of support for net neutrality in a podcast, saying, “We’ve got to make sure that the policy of net neutrality becomes the law of the land.” Rep. Mark Green (R-WI), a candidate for Wisconsin governor, has seen his recent House vote against net neutrality both praised and vilified by voters looking forward to Election Day.

Pending definitive Congressional action (and given the difficulty of enforcing locally imposed net neutrality regulations), initial state efforts have generally been limited to resolutions and studies on Internet access. Still, many members of the public policy community are warily watching net neutrality developments.

Paul Gessing, president of the New Mexico-based Rio Grande Foundation, observed, “So-called ‘net neutrality’ would undermine the free market nature of the Internet, and our organization will be keeping a watchful eye on our elected officials in New Mexico and will work to make sure that government intervention does not harm the Internet.”

Kristina Rasmussen ([email protected]) is senior government affairs manager for the National Taxpayers Union.

For more information …

More information on the net neutrality debate is available at http://www.ntu.org.

PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database, offers more than a dozen documents on net neutrality. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and choose the topic/subtopic combination Info Technology/Network Neutrality.