Chairman Ajit Pai and the Republican FCC Commissioners voted last December to end network neutrality protections, but many local and state elected officials and their many constituents did not support the decision. Suddenly, decision makers began seeking alternative approaches to ensuring an open Internet without fast or slow lanes. This week, Montana took the initiative by using an executive order to bar ISPs from entering into state contracts if those ISPs don't practice network neutrality.
Update: The State of New York is taking similar steps. Read more below.
While 22 states have taken legal action against the Commission to stop the December 14, 2017 repeal, Montana is using state power to protect its 1.043 million citizens rather than wait for the court to decide. On Monday, Governor Steve Bullock signed an executive order while visiting his former high school’s computer science class.
“There has been a lot of talk around the country about how to respond to the recent decision by Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality rules, which keep the Internet free and open. It’s time to actually do something about it. This is a simple step states can take to preserve and protect net neutrality. We can’t wait for folks in Washington DC to come to their senses and reinstate these rules.”
Montana currently contracts with several ISPs, including CenturyLink, AT&T, and Charter; state contracts come to about $50 million. The executive order requires the state’s Department of Administration to develop policies and guidance by March 1st. In order to enter into a new contract with the state for the new fiscal year that starts on July 1st, ISPs must not:
1. Block lawful content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices, subject to reasonable network management that is disclosed to the consumer;
2. Throttle, impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service, or use of a nonharmful device, subject to reasonable network management that is disclosed to the consumer;
3. Engage in paid prioritization; or
4. Unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage:
a. End users' ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice; or
b. Edge providers' ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users.
ISPs are also required to provide transparency to subscribers by publicly disclosing:
…[A]ccurate information regarding the network and transport management practices (including cellular data and wireless broadband transport), performance and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings.
Bullock encouraged other states to follow suit and protect their citizens where the FCC has failed:
“To every governor and every legislator in every statehouse across the country, and to every small business and every Fortune 500 company that wants a free and open Internet when they buy services: I will personally email this to you,” he said.
As Christopher noted when he spoke with AP reporter Matthew Brown, state-level action can achieve change because it accounts for a sizeable portion of national ISPs’ revenue:
If other states follow suit, it could have a significant impact — both on large telecommunications companies with state contracts and smaller companies trying to get into the market, said Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which supports net neutrality.
"States spend a lot of money on telecommunications contracts," Mitchell said. "We're seeing a number of states interested in doing something like this."
Local communities felt a blow when the FCC disregarded comments and well-considered opinions from community leaders, experts, and Internet users. Montana's approach is not the only way that state and local power can improve the environment for better connectivity and network neutrality protections. We recently shared franchising rules that the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, uses when private sector partners want to access publicly owned conduit. Municipal networks like Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics make network neutrality part of their Customer Care Pledge and the publicly owned regional RUS Broadband Cooperative has also pledged to maintain network neutrality practices. Local, regional, and state grassroots groups can make the policy a priority for local and state elected officials.
The issue isn't over, but Montana has shown that states aren't powerless and that they can take steps to protect Internet subscribers, regardless of federal policy mistakes.
Update: On January 24th, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 175, that prevents any state government office from entering into contracts with ISPs that do not adhere to network neutrality tenets. Affected State Entities to the Order cannot enter into contracts with ISPs that violate network neutrality on or after March 1st. The Governor also directs the Department of Public Service to seek out additional actions to promote network neutrality. Cuomo said of the order and the FCC decision to end network neutrality:
"The FCC's dangerous ruling goes against the core values of our democracy, and New York will do everything in our power to protect net neutrality and the free exchange of ideas," Cuomo said in a statement.
"With this executive order, we reaffirm our commitment to freedom and democracy and help ensure that the internet remains free and open to all."