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Washington will keep net neutrality in state if FCC won’t for the nation, Inslee says

Gov. Jay Inslee, flanked at a press conference Wednesday by Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, explains plans to enforce net neutrality in Washington even if the FCC votes to change the national rules on Thursday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington will enforce its own version of net neutrality if the Federal Communications Commission votes Thursday to change national rules, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.

Standing with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, tech executives and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Inslee said internet service providers that restrict access, block content or charge varying rates to different customers could find themselves facing sanctions from the state.

“There are some things worth fighting for,” Inslee said. “This is a free-speech issue as well as a business development issue.”

The FCC is scheduled to consider changes to the 2015 net neutrality rules supported by the Obama administration. The changes would allow ISPs more authority to vary their rates based on customer size, put some customers on slower service, charge for the use of certain applications or allow corporations to block content. Critics of the current rules say they hurt investment in internet infrastructure, amount to government interference in business, and are unnecessary because phone and cable companies already say they support an open internet.

If the commission approves the current draft rules, or something close to them, Washington will try to keep ISPs that offer service inside its borders from changing, Inslee said.

The state could bring consumer protection actions against ISPs that take those steps, could refuse to contract with those that aren’t net neutral, or could ask the Utilities and Transportation Commission to deny them access to utility poles and work with public utility districts to provide internet service in areas they serve, he said.

Reps. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and Norma Smith, R-Clinton, are each preparing legislation for the coming session that would offer net neutrality protections to Washington consumers if the FCC changes the national rules. Smith said that if the phone and cable companies truly support an open internet they should not object to the legislation.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, newly elected from the district that contains Microsoft and many other tech companies, said she is working on legislation to make sure Washington remains a good place for tech start-ups “to thrive and grow.”

Sarah Bird, chief executive officer of the Seattle-based internet marketing and analytics company, said smaller tech companies might be shut out of the preferable rates and faster speeds that ISPs will offer the largest companies. “You’re going to have ghetto-ized internet,” she predicted.

Just over the horizon could be a lawsuit filed by Ferguson’s office, which has already challenged the Trump administration’s rule changes on immigration, military service by transgender citizens and other controversial topics.

Ferguson said state attorneys would wait to study what the FCC does Thursday before making a decision on legal action. But there are questions about the way the commission gathered public comment for its proposed rule changes, with some comments apparently generated by internet devices, known as “bots,” that attach people’s names to supportive emails without their knowledge, he said.

Previous cases have been successful because the administration failed to follow proper procedures to change a rule, Ferguson, a Democrat, said. Asked what he would say to people who contend his legal fights with the Trump administration are political, he replied: “As long as we keep winning, it’s pretty clear it’s not political.”