Reacting to a federal rule that overturned net-neutrality requirements a year ago, the Assembly on Thursday passed a package of bills designed to ensure all New Jerseyans continue to get equal access to the internet.
If eventually enacted, the three-bill package would make New Jersey the fifth state in the nation to pass laws that seek to maintain net neutrality — the idea that all content transmitted over the internet should be treated equally without imposing different charges on specific users, applications, or content.
Like some of the bills adopted elsewhere, the measures the Assembly passed — with mostly Democratic support — would require internet service providers (ISPs) doing business in the state to maintain net neutrality, thus ensuring New Jersey consumers continue to have equal access to the internet. They were introduced in response to the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to end the practice as of last June.
The FCC’s action repealed rules adopted under the administration of President Barack Obama requiring ISPs to treat all content on the internet equally. The rules prohibited providers from blocking, slowing down or prioritizing web traffic from some sites or apps, or giving preferential treatment to their own content over that of rivals, or to content for which an extra fee is charged.
During a hearing on the bills last year, ACLU-NJ and the New Jersey Library Association had argued that maintaining net neutrality is vital for the enjoyment of citizens, the transaction of business, the conduct of government work, and the continuation of free speech and democracy.
Providers say bills are unnecessary
At the same time, the state’s major internet providers and several associations opposed the bills, saying they were not necessary and could be unconstitutional, as states do not have the right to regulate the internet.
David Weissmann, a spokesman for Verizon Consumer Group, did not address the question of New Jersey’s right to mandate net neutrality, but indicated that regulation is not needed.
“Verizon has long been committed to an open internet,” he said. “Our broadband commitment has been in place for years, and we continue to stand by that commitment.”
The bills’ sponsors are not taking that on faith.
“The FCC’s repeal of net neutrality regulations have made consumers vulnerable to the whims of the cable and telecomm companies,” said Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson), one of the sponsors of the bills. “These measures would help protect New Jersey consumers from potential price-gouging and other unfair practices.”
Different means to the same end
The measures do not specifically require providers to follow net neutrality rules, but establish other requirements that would essentially lead to that happening.
“A fair and open internet is critical to fostering innovation and economic growth, especially for small businesses and startups,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), another sponsor of the package. “These bills make clear that, while the FCC may have abandoned its responsibility to internet consumers, New Jersey will do what it can to safeguard an open internet for all.”
FCC action got a lot of pushback
These are not the first actions the state has taken on the issue. Early on, lawmakers had passed a resolution urging the president and Congress to restore net neutrality in federal law. Gov. Phil Murphy also signed an executive order last year requiring all ISPs doing business with the state to adhere to net-neutrality principles as of last July 1. Additionally, New Jersey joined a multistate lawsuit over the FCC’s repeal of the rules.
While more than half the states have taken some action in opposition to the FCC’s ruling, only four others had enacted laws in reference to the issue as of January, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The trio of bills passed by the Assembly now head to the Senate for consideration. Although all three have companion bills in the upper house, none has received a hearing there yet.