ne winter afternoon at the state capitol, cameras flash, the room quiets, and Washington governor Jay Inslee launches into his proclamation to guard what is so crucial in a tech-driven economy: an open internet. It’s December 13, 2017, the eve of the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to undo the protections that ensured all web traffic be treated equally. And so begins the state’s race to save the internet as we know it. Three months later Inslee, a fiercely blue tie around his neck and a black-inked pen in hand, signs the nation’s first state-level net neutrality bill.
This past October, a DC appeals court upheld that rollback of the government’s regulatory grip on internet service providers. Those now-repealed Obama-era rules determined ISPs couldn’t block, slow down, speed up, or otherwise interfere with certain websites or apps. But online access remains unfettered in Washington state.
“Because we were the first state to act—to resist the Trump administration and protect consumers with net neutrality—there’s nothing we need to do in the wake of the DC circuit’s decision,” says representative Drew Hansen, whose cosponsored House Bill 2282 secured the state’s web freedom. “Other states are looking to follow our lead.” So far, five states have likewise signed net neutrality laws, while 21 more have legislation pending.
Seattle, which thrives as a city of innovators, incubators, tech startups, and app creators, not to mention the biggest e-commerce outfit in the world, makes perfect sense as a trailblazer. We have internet clout. But there are a lot of unknowns for now. “If you followed net neutrality over its history, we’ve seen an awful lot of strange twists that no one really anticipated,” says Ron Johnson, a University of Washington professor in the Information School, who wonders if our current law is sustainable. If too few states have net neutrality policies, service providers could theoretically offer a legally acceptable but generally worse “dumbed-down version of the internet.”
Getting punished with inferior services is a possibility, but for now, Johnson concedes, “state-based actions, like those of Washington, are consumers’ main hope” for uncorrupted traffic. And there’s power in numbers as other states pass similar policies. The political will is already there; over four in five Americans, regardless of party, support net neutrality. The internet today is too essential—for research, for work, for social relevance since we so often commune more online than off these days. The FCC’s goals may change as different administrations come and go, but the world wide web is steadfast, a neutral internet its default state. “What people are really doing when they’re violating net neutrality,” says Johnson, “is violating the basic principles of the internet.”