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By Abigail Rausch
Hope From Helena 

Bullock Leads on Net Neutrality


January 24, 2018

Montana has become the first state to establish net neutrality requirements for telecommunications providers who wish to maintain state contracts. Governor Steve Bullock signed the executive order Jan. 22, and with the stroke of a pen protected Montanans’ access to a free and open internet. Internet service providers will not be able to block or prioritize content or charge any customer in the state of Montana more for speediness if they wish to maintain or renew contracts with the state government. As the Governor said on Monday, “the state of Montana is one of the biggest consumers of internet services in our state,” which illustrates the obvious incentive telecom companies have to adhere to these guidelines.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved an open internet order which regulated internet service the same way as any other public utility, and restricted those providers from charging more for access to certain sites or for faster access, throttling streaming speeds for specific sites, and from blocking or prioritizing certain sites over others. Without net neutrality requirements, internet providers like Verizon or CenturyLink would be able to charge additional fees for quicker access to web services like YouTube, Facebook or Hulu, and could choose to slow the speed of those sites in order to promote their own similar in-house services.

In a Montana without net neutrality regulations in place, small businesses and local startups and innovators would face another hurdle to their success: negotiating and partnering with telecom companies to ensure their sites would not be relegated to the slow corner of the internet. Larger companies are naturally more suited to paying the fees that will arise out of a net neutrality-free system, whereas smaller businesses would be hindered by the cost and inconvenience. Montana’s small business economy benefits hugely from the ability to promote businesses and maintain an internet presence without being shunted into a inferior slow-lane of internet traffic based on the priorities and biases of large telecom companies.

When telecom companies are regulated as utilities, the private companies are required to provide services equally to every customer. If the internet were to be treated as a commodity, suddenly that standard disappears and pricing people out of the internet market entirely becomes more likely. With a commodity, supply and demand are the driving factors of price, so naturally high traffic sites would be treated differently than say, someone’s blog or a small business website. Smaller sites could be ignored, stuck in the slow lane, and trapped in an internet no-man’s land without any chance for upward mobility or success compared to big companies whose sites are much more likely to succeed in that system.

Treating the internet like a toll road, where web services with a bigger overhead are more likely to succeed online, and designating fast and slow lanes of internet traffic based on the priorities of the internet providing company, flies in the face of the principles of a free and open internet. Without net neutrality, AT&T and Verizon would be able to choose which parts of the internet to promote and which to minimize. The FCC recently overturned the very rules that establish an equal playing field for all internet users, and Governor Bullock is taking initiative by ordering them to be reinstated in the state of Montana. The Governor’s actions are a testament to the increasingly large role western states and their leaders are playing in the fight for maintaining the traditions of a fair and egalitarian society. This is a truly bipartisan issue, with Secretary of State Corey Stapleton writing his own defense of net neutrality in early December. “Innovative ideas and small Montana businesses rely on the internet being open and accessible. They deserve net neutrality”. This is a sentiment echoed by many Montanans, and in a hyper partisan world, illustrates how important a free and open internet is to folks on both sides of the aisle.

If the federal government and the FCC have no interest in maintaining internet norms and wish to radically change the way people interact with the web, it is vital that strong leaders in the states take measures to protect a free and open internet themselves. Governor Bullock leading the charge has framed net neutrality as an issue of local control – the hallowed ideal of states rights is in play – and sets the stage for other state Governors to follow his lead. Currently over 20 states’ are suing the federal government to block the repeal, and a number of states have introduced net neutrality bills within their state legislators. Now we also have a blueprint for state Governors to take action on this issue. Western values are something the residents of Big Sky Country take immense pride in, and keeping the internet a place free from prioritization based on the whims of big corporations is especially important.

Montanans have always been proud of the ability to make up their own minds. Losing net neutrality will make it more difficult to find unbiased, unfiltered content, and will morph the internet from a relatively level playing field to a political sphere. Those companies with the most money and capacity will be able to push their content in a way that will make it unattainable for average internet users, small businesses, and innovators to do the same. The FCC repeal is a new hurdle for supporters of an open, free, and unbiased internet, and it is up to the states to rise to the challenge presented.

Thank you Governor Bullock for leading by example.


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