Democrats in the state Legislature are poised to introduce bills that would create broadband internet rules to protect so-called "net neutrality" at the state level.
Net neutrality refers to the idea that companies providing internet service should treat all online data the same. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission passed rules that codified that idea into official policy, barring internet service providers from blocking, slowing or otherwise manipulating websites or media.
Late last year, the FCC voted to dissolve those rules, causing an uproar among Democrats, internet activists and businesses who say the move would stifle innovation and make the internet a less democratic space.
Specific worries include the introduction of "zero rating," in which service providers would have consumers pay for unlimited access to packages of websites and services while capping access to others, or "paid prioritization" scenarios where websites would have to pay fees to access higher-bandwidth connections.
In the wake of the vote, 21 states have filed suit to challenge the FCC order, while Democrats in the Senate have been trying to drum up the votes to overturn the maneuver legislatively.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has joined a group of states where legislators are introducing bills to protect net neutrality at a sub-federal level.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, and Rep Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, are introducing a bill that would bar the state from contracting with internet service providers that violate the former FCC rules. Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, are introducing a bill that would more simply reinstate the former FCC rules, just at the state level.
“I think everyone at every level has to be trying to make a difference on this very important issue,” said Anderson.
“We want to make sure that we continue a free and fair internet for everyone,” said Brostoff. “This is a defining moment of our generation.”
The authors of the bill acknowledge that the likelihood of either bill gaining traction in a GOP-majority Legislature is slim to nil. They said that to the best of their knowledge, no Republicans in the state Legislature have publicly voiced support for reinstating net neutrality protections.
“This is just another case of big telecomm with deep campaign pockets being able to buy politicians,” said Brostoff.
Neither the chair of the Senate Committee on Elections and Utilities or the chair of the Assembly Committee on Science and Technology — the committees that the bills would likely take up the bills — would comment on the measures. Sen. Devin LaMahieu, R-Oostburg, declined to weigh in, while Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, did not respond to a request for comment.
The two bills, which were recently circulating in the Legislature in the pursuit of co-sponsorship but have yet to be formally introduced, mark two different approaches to challenging the FCC’s recent order. The bill barring state contracts is an attempt to create a law that would potentially skirt part of the FCC order that bars state and municipal governments from implementing their own measures to preserve net neutrality.
“What I wanted to do was to find something that would pass legal muster,” said Anderson.
While the state contracts bill wouldn’t provide the same flat-out protections as its counterpart would, Erpenbach said that forcing providers to comply with those rules for the sake of procuring public contracts would hopefully make a difference.
“Hopefully that will spill over to the private side of things,” he said.
The other bill, according to Brostoff, was written specifically with the intent to directly challenge the FCC order, and potentially be the basis of a future legal challenge.
Bill Esbeck is the secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, a state trade group that includes internet service providers. He said that net neutrality needs to remain a federal issue, not a state one.
“It becomes difficult, if not impossible, for multiple state entities to deal with a patchwork of state-level regulations if states begin implementing regulations like this,” said Esbeck.
Esbeck said that the WSTA has not taken a stance on net neutrality overall.