OLYMPIA – Internet providers pushed back Thursday against legislation that would require them to continue offering accessible and open Internet service in Washington.
Those laws aren’t necessary because the federal government already has the power to intervene, they said, and state regulations could cause problems for multi-state companies.
Two separate bills in the House of Representatives would prohibit providers from blocking content or making some websites pay more for faster Internet speeds. The bills, sponsored by Reps. Drew Hansen, D-Seattle, and Norma Smith, R-Clinton, propose many of the same regulations. Hansen said he and Smith would work together to remove any inconsistencies.
Lawmakers are trying to replace net neutrality regulations that the Federal Communications Commission established in 2015 but recently rolled back.
But Gerry Keegan, a trade representative working with companies including AT&T, Sprint, T Mobile, Verizon and US Cellular, said a different agency, the Federal Trade Commission, could enforce existing consumer protection laws.
Statewide regulation also poses problems for companies with networks extending outside state boundaries, Keegan told the House Technology and Economic Development Committee.
Logan Bowers, a self-described veteran of the Washington tech industry, said in the roughly 20 years before the FCC’s 2015 regulations on net neutrality, there were many instances of Internet service providers, or ISPs, taking advantage of their consumers.
“ISPs would leverage the fact that they’re one of the only companies that your citizens and your districts can (use) to gain access to the Internet,” he said.
The third bill heard by the committee would limit how ISPs could use data collected from their customers, specifically for marketing purposes. It would prohibit Internet providers from selling or transferring customer information without opt-in consent.
Ron Main, with the Broadband Communications Association of Washington, said the bill is unnecessary, and that FTC regulations would keep ISPs in check.
“None of the major ISPs share personally identifiable information without opt-ins,” he said.
If that’s the case, Hansen said providers should not have a problem with regulation, but lawmakers have a duty to ensure their constituents’ privacy and safety.
“Let’s not accept things at face value,” he said.
Alex Alben, chief privacy officer at state Office of Privacy and Data Protection, said privacy protection is subject to the FTC and the administration it’s under. Resting all hope in FTC regulation would be a bad idea, he said.
“I’m very happy to hear from the representatives of the industry that they have pledged not to do the things with respect to the sale or disclosure of personal information that are prohibited in this legislation,” he said. “All I would say is, why don’t we just create a floor of practices that protect all citizens in the state of Washington?”
On Thursday morning, the Senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee considered whether Internet providers should be required to disclose information about performance, commercial practices, rates and terms of service.
Failing to disclosure it would be a violation of the Consumer Protection Act. The bill also would bar government agencies from entering a service agreement with Internet providers that fail to meet disclosure requirements.
Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, the sponsor, said it is about transparency so consumers can make informed decisions.
Keegan argued there are still strong consumer protections in place.
“The nation’s leading broadband providers have committed that they will not unfairly block or throttle legal Internet traffic,” he said. The state attorney general can sue companies that utilize unfair business practices or ignore current regulations on consumer disclosure.
Keegan and Bob Bass with AT&T, said they would favor federal regulation over state regulation because it would remain consistent state-to-state.
But many providers who previously opposed net neutrality at the FCC are the same ones that now say they favor federal regulation, Carlyle said.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said he was disappointed to see trade representatives opposing the bill.
“This is the minor bill that is simply saying ‘be transparent with your actions,’” he said. “Until (federal regulation) happens, states must protect their citizens, and they must protect the Internet.”
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