Georgia state senator prepares bill requiring internet ‘neutrality’


When the Federal Communications Commission voted to toss out “net neutrality,” consumer advocates howled that the change would limit consumer choices and hurt small businesses.

Since then, scores of Congress members have said they support the idea of re-instating the rule but discussion of the idea has been largely sidetracked as lawmakers were distracted by other things – like this week’s government shutdown.

In the meantime, several dozen state legislatures have acted to re-instate the rule in their states, but Georgia hasn’t been one of them – but an effort to change that is underway.

Net neutrality was intended to force internet carriers to treat all content the same.

Without net neutrality, companies might feel free to charge more for the higher-speed access, which would give an advantage to bigger companies, said State Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta. “Up to this point, the internet has really been looked on as a kind of public utility, a public good. Now, we are changing the definition, to look at it as a kind of economic utility.”

It is sometimes hard to galvanize support for net neutrality, he said. “It is actually very interesting, but it can make a layperson’s eyes glaze over. You have to go to your community and explain it.”

Telecom companies have argued for years that the rules were heavy-handed, added to costs and discouraged investment. But some consumer advocates fear that without the rule, companies will speed up content from companies that pay more and slow down businesses that don’t.

Political bias would also be possible, critics said.

Jones said he wants the state to step into the void and reassert net neutrality – at least for Georgia.

He is preparing a bill that will be filed shortly, he said. “The better course was to leave it in the hands of the FCC…”

The early versions of Jones’ bill, tentatively designated SB 310, would make it illegal for an internet service provider to block content, applications or services, so long as they are lawful.

Many internet companies say they don’t need such a rule to treat consumers fairly.

UNDERSTANDING NET NEUTRALITY 

For example, a statement from Atlanta-based Cox Communications on Monday re-affirmed that the company does not “block, throttle or otherwise interfere with consumers’ desire to go where they want on the Internet.”

Cox endorses the repeal, because it returns to “light touch” regulation that will be good for internet innovation, said spokesman Todd Smith. “Cox has always been committed to providing an open Internet experience for our customers, and reversing the classification of Internet services does not change our commitment.”

Atlanta-based Cox Communications is one of three business units owned by Cox Enterprises. One of the other units owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Overall, the odds would seem to be against a return to net neutrality rules in Georgia. Gov. Nathan Deal, for example, has opposed net neutrality in the past and expressed no problems with the FCC repeal. Through spokeswoman Jen Ryan, he declined comment on Jones’ proposal.

“The governor doesn’t comment on pending legislation,” she said.

Jones so far has no Republican allies, though he argued that positions on the issue should not follow political lines. “People think it’s a partisan issue, but it’s really not. Look at small businesses, they depend on the internet.”

In the state of Washington, for instance, one of those pushing for net neutrality is Norma Smith, a Republican state representative.

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