Wyden: Net neutrality needs defenders
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden endorsed federal and state efforts to retain rules, known as "net neutrality," that bar internet service providers from blocking, throttling or prioritizing web content.
The Oregon Democrat, a longtime champion of an open internet, spoke Friday, Feb. 23, at a rally outside the Capitol.
"I think it's clear, especially from the presence of all of you, that a free and open internet is a critical ingredient to (economic) success," from students to households and small businesses, State Treasurer Tobias Read said.
The net-neutrality issue is active in several political arenas.
The Federal Communications Commission, under a chairman (Ajit Pai) named last year by President Donald Trump, has voted to repeal the 2015 rules adopted while Barack Obama was president. That action takes effect in 60 days, on April 23, unless majorities in both chambers of Congress vote to overturn it and reinstate the rules.
"What this means is that if Mr. Pai has his way, what we would see is a new world where major companies would have the authority to block websites, take them down, and in effect derail the ability to get quick access to information," Wyden said at the rally.
"This is what this is about for the information aristocracy."
Republicans hold majorities in the House and Senate, so votes on a repeal are uncertain.
Wyden is optimistic about the Senate, where Republican Susan Collins of Maine has joined the 47 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them in a resolution to thwart the FCC action.
The effort is problematic in the House, where there are 143 Democratic sponsors.
Wyden is hoping for a public outcry similar to that in 2011 and 2012, when Wyden succeeded in turning back congressional efforts to enact bills that advocates said were aimed at piracy, but Wyden said also would hurt websites and the internet.
"We said in this brave new world, we are going to have a policy open to everybody, not Mr. Pai's version," he said.
Some major internet service providers say they will not change their practices despite the repeal.
"But there is about as much chance of having 'voluntary' net neutrality as there is to get William Peter Wyden (10-year-old son) to voluntarily limit the number of desserts he is going to eat," Wyden said.
"It's whether Oregon people power is going to prevail over Big Cable."
Wyden spoke at length about net neutrality during a 2017 talk at the City Club of Portland.
In addition to potential congressional action, there are related developments in the Oregon Legislature and a potential statewide ballot initiative for the Nov. 6 general election.
The Oregon House voted 40-17 Monday to pass House Bill 4155, sponsored by Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson of Portland and 25 other Democrats.
The bill would require state and local governments to use their purchasing power to contract for broadband services only with internet service providers that observe net neutrality.
"We are here to ensure that Oregon tax dollars are used to protect the people who pay Oregon taxes," Williamson said.
"This law puts consumers first and it forces corporations to wait in line.
"This law allows Oregonians to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough. We will not stand for any more rollbacks, and we will protect Oregonians and their free access to an open internet. We refuse to sit by while Washington D.C. rolls back its regulations and sells access to the highest bidder."
A Senate vote is still needed to send it to Gov. Kate Brown. Similar legislation is pending in about 25 states.
"There are different approaches to tackling this issue," said Sam Pastrick, consumer advocate for the Oregon Citizens' Utility Board, which supports the bill. "The key point is that the federal government has dropped the ball in repealing previous rules for net neutrality."
Not mentioned during the rally is a multistate lawsuit that Oregon has joined with 22 states and New York is leading in federal court.
A potential ballot measure, known as Initiative Petition (IP) 40, would enable Oregon to regulate internet service providers based on net neutrality. The pending legislation does not do so.
IP 40 requires the signatures of 1,000 voters before it can qualify for a ballot title — an official summary — and circulate among voters, 88,184 of whom must sign by July to qualify the measure for a statewide election.
Its chief petitioners are Thomas Frank, a former West Linn city councilor, and Rachel Novick of Portland, who owns a firm that analyzes political data. Oregonians for Net Neutrality is supporting it.
Policy Director Kimberly McCullough said there is a reason why the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon has advocated net neutrality and supports HB 4155.
"The internet is where political activists and social change-makers can connect and organize and take action," she said at the rally. "Net neutrality is a consumer issue. But it is also one of the most important free-speech issues of our times."
She added as people laughed: "I really like the internet because it has adorable pictures of kittens."
NOTE: Corrects error in lead paragraph; updates with Oregon House approval Monday of House Bill 4155.