Posted on March 28, 2018
By Samantha J. Gross, Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — Senators faced some criticism from internet industry leaders at a hearing Wednesday, where a new Massachusetts Senate proposal on net neutrality was up for discussion.
Under the new bill, internet service providers would be banned from blocking content, charging fees for faster connectivity and intentionally slowing speed of certain websites. Opponents contend the measure oversteps the state’s authority to regulate an industry under federal oversight.
The bill was created by a Senate committee formed to respond to the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of President Barack Obama-era rules based on the idea that all internet providers treat traffic equally and provide service as a “public utility.”
The committee is co-chaired by Majority Leader Cynthia Creem and Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester. Other members include Sens. Michael Barrett, D-Lexington; Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton; Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow; Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover and Patrick O’Connor, D-Weymouth.
Under the measure, the state’s Department of Telecommunications and Cable would be responsible for “making an assessment against each internet service provider,” according to the report. The department would also work to ensure the state abides by net neutrality standards and “cover the new costs associated with the Department’s new role in the ISP sector.”
Senate supporters of the bill said access to the internet should be free and open to everyone across the commonwealth and not be affected by decisions made in Washington, D.C.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai claimed in November that he has the authority to preempt states and municipalities from imposing laws similar to the net neutrality rules his FCC is getting rid of. In December, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey joined other attorneys general in a lawsuit against the FCC’s decision to roll back the rules.
Creem told a press conference before the hearing that she hopes the bill passes soon and that although it’s not clear whether the federal government will sue the commonwealth on basis of preemption, she’s glad they drafted a bill just in case.
“We’re dealing with a whole new frontier here,” the Newton Democrat said.
L’Italien called the repeal of net neutrality a federal “failure,” which she said left lawmakers scrambling to take action. L’Italien filed legislation in December to protect consumers by “prohibiting blocking, throttling or paid prioritization in the provision of internet service.”
“Rarely do you get the responsibility and privilege to work on an issue affecting virtually every single consumer in the commonwealth,” she said. “Access to all that the internet has to offer ensures equality of information in today’s high-tech world … this bill is a step in the right direction to assure that all Bay Staters can use the internet freely and without restriction.”
Eldridge, who filed a similar bill earlier in March that was folded into this proposal, said that without net neutrality, big providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon can change how consumers can access the internet.
Eldridge’s Internet Freedom Act would assert the commonwealth’s authority to require internet service providers to treat all online traffic equally, and prohibit them from blocking or regulating web content. His bill also required companies who enter into state contracts to follow neutrality regulations and require providers to make company information public so that consumers can make informed choices.
“Providers now have the legal right to suppress political opinions they disagree with, slow down web content and stifle innovation by start-ups that is one of the staples of the Massachusetts economy,” Eldridge said. “We cannot give a handful of giant corporations a free pass to suppress our freedom of speech and squash small businesses.”
Sen. Cindy Friedman said the bill is critical to protecting the public from “failures” at the federal level.
“This bill would impose critical safeguards to preserve equal access to content on the web, protect our consumers, encourage innovation and ensure that tech-start-ups stay in business,” the Arlington Democrat said. “When the federal government fails to protect the free flow of information on the internet, it is imperative for the state to step in.”
At the hearing, representatives of groups on both sides of the bill testified.
Matt Mincieli, TechNet Massachusetts director, argued against proposed language in the bill regarding internet service providers, contending states are not properly prepared to regulate an already-regulated system.
“The ecosystem here has been built on a certain set of rules,” Mincieli said. “The companies in the tech sector have been playing in one set of rules across the country.”
Gerard Keegan, assistant vice president of CTIA, a trade association that represents the wireless communications industry like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless, was also opposed.
Keegan said his providers have publicly agreed not to “block or throttle” content and that since broadband services travel across state lines, state-by-state regulation is “untenable.”
“State attempts to regulate the internet will harm the seamless customer experience,” Keegan said. “Having state legislation in this area and risking that economic impact is too risky for the state to undertake.”
Also in disagreement was New England Cable and Telecommunications Association Vice President Tim Wilkerson, who said the proposal was “heavy-handed” and that consumers should be protected by a single federal law to enshrine net neutrality principles.
Deidre Cummings, the legislative director of MassPIRG, said the bill provides an opportunity for the state to combat “bad decisions’ at the federal level. She said seeing headlines about data breaches and leaks makes it obvious that consumers need more privacy protections on the internet.
“States have the opportunity to take the lead and work to protect their residents. We hope that Massachusetts will do the same and pass this bill into law,” Cummings said. “States like Massachusetts can lead the way. We want to make sure that the internet works for everyone.”
Gavi Wolfe, the legislative counsel for the Massachusetts ACLU, agreed and said recent news about security breaches have been particularly troubling.
“Who wants to live in a world where providers can charge us $100 a month only to see a censored interne?” he asked “The important of regulating internet privacy is at the top of the national conversation.”