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VOL. 42 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 26, 2018

Tennessee Democrats take aim at net neutrality on state level

By Sam Stockard

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Legislation designed to reverse a federal decision repealing net neutrality regulations is surfacing in the General Assembly, an effort to maintain Tennesseans’ open access to the internet.

Sponsored by Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Sen. Lee Harris, both Democrats, the legislation would enable the state and individual consumers to take legal action against internet providers if they create levels of service by charging consumers more for certain websites, service speeds or information.

“If the will of the people is to be heard, net neutrality should be the law of the land, because everyone supports net neutrality,” said Clemmons, who represents a Nashville district. “This is a consumer protection act, this is something to ensure equal access to the key source of information in the 21st century.”

The Clemmons/Harris bill would restrict state and local governments from contracting with internet service providers that don’t comply with net neutrality.

The Tennessee Public Utility Commission would set rules for meeting net neutrality and anyone “injured by a violation” would be able to file a complaint through the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. The commission also would be authorized to issue cease and desist orders as well as civil penalties of $2,000.

More than 20 states have sued the federal government already over the Federal Communications Commission’s December vote to scrap regulations prohibiting internet providers from blocking website access or making consumers pay more for quicker service and content. The decision reversed a 2015 move approved during the Obama administration and aligns with the philosophies of the Trump administration and new FCC chairman who contend deregulation will bolster new ideas and the economic landscape, according to reports.

Harris, though, contends the chief executive officers of AT&T and Comcast shouldn’t decide which websites, services and pieces of information are available to “everyday” Tennesseans.

“I think most elected officials around here understand what is happening and would reject giving that kind of power to private industry,” Harris said.

The two legislators consider the measure a consumer protection bill enabling the state and consumers to file complaints against internet service providers if they start charging higher rates for different tiers of service. Before the FCC decision, internet providers could be sued for those types of violations, they said.

“We’re just saying let’s bring that down to the state level and the state would take them to court to enforce these rules,” Harris said.

AT&T did not say whether it supports or opposes such legislation or backs the FCC vote, though the company appears to reject the passage of different laws nationwide.

In a statement, AT&T spokesman Joseph Burgan said, “AT&T is committed to operating our network in an open and transparent way, and we will always do so. We do not block websites, we do not censor online content, we do not throttle or degrade internet traffic based on content, and we do no unfairly discriminate in our transmission of internet traffic.”

“While AT&T supports the principles of an open internet, we favor federal legislation to ensure that there is one set of rules that applies to all internet companies and includes internet and privacy protections for consumers. A patchwork of different state rules would confuse consumers, harm competition and impede innovation and investment,” Burgan said.

The company wants to work with Congress and other internet providers and consumers to “permanently protect the open internet,” he said.

The bill could run head long into a hurdle such as House Majority Leader Glen Casada, who said he has “a problem with government being involved with freedom of speech.”

“So, whatever takes government out of control of running, say the internet, I’m for. On this net neutrality, it looks to me what the FCC has done is taking government oversight out and given it back to the free market.”

Consumers should have to pay for intellectual property, including music and videos, Casada said.

“If I come up with a song, you shouldn’t take my song for free,” he said.

States’ “responsibilities”

Clemmons said the public holds a misperception that the federal government pre-empted states and individuals from taking legal action against internet service providers.

“But what the federal government did is decide just not to do anything. You can’t pre-empt states by simply not doing anything,” he said. “So, states have a wide latitude here to enforce net neutrality, not only through the police power but also through the buying power of the state.”

The state has the responsibility to look out for the safety and security of its residents, including the operation of 911 service, or instance, which is connected to the internet, he pointed out.

Harris, meanwhile, said it won’t be difficult for the state or individuals to detect when internet providers start charging more for higher levels of services.

Taken to the extreme, he said, internet providers will offer a basic package, then potentially charge more for Facebook access or to watch movies and documentaries on Netflix.

“You’ll get a bill in the mail that says you no longer have access to this site that was connecting you to family and friends. You don’t have access unless you pay an additional charge to this site that you were using to start your own business or to learn something new or to get a set of skills,” Harris said.

Nationally, the internet Association is among the groups opposing the FCC move, and several Democratic members of Congress want to turn back the decision as well.

“Since its inception, the internet has been governed by principles of openness and non-discrimination,” the association says on its website. “Net neutrality is the legal principle that underpins the free and open internet as we know it today. Simply put, it means that broadband gatekeepers – Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other internet service providers (ISPs) – should treat all internet traffic equally and not discriminate between different bits of data. That’s how the internet works today: users can go to any website and access any type of content, whenever they want.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, is co-sponsoring federal legislation to undo the FCC ruling and condemned it in an op-ed before the vote took place.

“The FCC is kowtowing to the big internet companies, giving them control over what consumers can see and how much premiere content will cost,” Cohen said in a statement. “This kind of deregulation will adversely affect the way the public accesses its information and entertainment, all for the benefit of a handful of telecommunications giants.”

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