Washington State Lawmakers Pass Net Neutrality Bill

Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...

By Paul Shukovsky

Washington state lawmakers passed a bill intended to protect net neutrality by forbidding internet service providers from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing web traffic.

The measure, SHB 2282, makes it a violation of the state Consumer Protection Act for ISPs operating in Washington to: block content, applications, services or nonharmful devices; degrade traffic on the basis of content, app, or service; or favor some traffic over other traffic in return for payment.

The bill passed the Senate, 35-14, Feb. 27. It passed the House, 93-5, earlier this month and now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is expected to sign it.

The passage marks the first time a net neutrality bill has cleared both chambers of a state legislature since the Federal Communications Commission voted in December to repeal rules barring ISPs from blocking or slowing internet traffic, according to Danielle Dean, policy director of telecommunications and technology at National Conference of State Legislatures.

With more than two dozen states eyeing similar legislation, the move serves as a reminder to the FCC’s repeal proponents, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, that efforts to preempt state laws will meet strong opposition.

Since the rule rollback, lawmakers in 26 states have introduced 59 bills that would mandate ISPs to adhere to net neutrality principles, according to a Feb. 23 NCSL summary.

The “vote guarantees the net neutrality rules that have protected a free and open internet will continue to remain in place in Washington,” Rep. Drew Hansen (D), the bill’s chief sponsor, said in a statement. “This is a cause with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

‘A Matter of Principle’

Inslee’s support for net neutrality rules is widely known in the state. He stood with Hansen at a news conference when the bill was introduced. He wrote in a Dec. 6 letter to Pai that “all Americans, as a matter of principle, should enjoy equal access to the educational, social and economic power of the internet.”

ISPs and other proponents of the FCC’s move say the change won’t affect customers’ internet experience and will free the industry to pursue innovative products. Industry organizations, such as CTIA and the Broadband Communications Association of Washington, along with AT&T Inc., CenturyLink Inc., T-Mobile US Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., and Charter Communications Inc., testified against the state bill.

Pai told Bloomberg Law this week in Barcelona, where he attended the Mobile World Congress trade show, that he’s confident the FCC’s order will survive its legal challenges. The FCC will assert its preemptive authority over states, he said.

“Broadband internet access service is an inherently interstate service and, as such, the federal government has the ability to set what the policy is,” Pai said. “To the extent that a state conflicts with that deregulatory policy, then it would be preempted.”

“If the state is adopting generally applicable laws then it might not be preempted,” Pai added. “It’s a case-by-case scenario. You would have to look at the order and try to square it with what the state was doing.”

Sheri Sawyer, senior policy advisor to Inslee, told Bloomberg Law in a Feb. 28 interview that it’s still unclear if the FCC has preemptive authority. She also noted that Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) has said he’d defend the state law, once enacted, in court. Ferguson is one of 23 attorneys general nationwide who sued the FCC to block the net neutrality rollback.

“Just because the FCC says they have preemption doesn’t mean they have it,” Sawyer said.

With assistance from Bryce Baschuk.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at pshukovsky@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com

Copyright © 2018 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Tech & Telecom on Bloomberg Law