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Gov. Polis is about to sign a Colorado net neutrality bill — one with some serious teeth

Colorado's “open internet” bill would punish internet-providing violators by taking their grant money away

TP-Link network switch with ethernet cables. ( Anthony Quintano, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Now that Democrats are in charge, Colorado’s second attempt at its own version of a net neutrality law passed the General Assembly and now heads to Gov. Jared Polis for his certain signature.

Keeping internet speeds consistent regardless of whether a customer is streaming video from Comcast or Netflix wasn’t the only intent of the Senate Bill 78. The bill also makes internet service providers pay back state grants to build broadband infrastructure if those companies use paid prioritization to favor some internet traffic over others, or slow down speeds for some users.

“What I was really looking for in this year’s bill was the appropriate nexus of action. A lot of the bills we saw getting in trouble in other states, or bills that were facing a lot of opposition, were more about sending a message of net neutrality instead of looking for a fulcrum point for state action,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail who sponsored last year’s bill and wrote this year’s bill. “This bill says that if you’re going to ask to be funded by the people in Colorado directly out of their paycheck then you need to adhere to these principles.”

Polis, a former tech entrepreneur, “supports this bill,” a spokeswoman said.

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Net neutrality refers to the idea that all legal digital data flowing through internet pipes must be treated the same. An internet service provider can’t allow Netflix videos, for example, to stream faster than email, Spotify music or online videos from a local library service — even if Netflix is paying extra for it. Also not allowed: A system where Comcast makes sure its customers get better speeds watching its own content over Netflix’s.

When the Federal Communications Commission ended the net neutrality rules in December 2017, the debate continued. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and the District of Columbia have since introduced 120 bills and resolutions on the topic. Five, including California and New Jersey, have enacted legislation or adopted resolutions. And the U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering a bill to reinstate net neutrality rules.

Since the federal rules went away, instances of net neutrality violations have cropped up around the country. But not all may have violated the old rules. Verizon, for example, was accused of throttling the mobile data plans of firefighters last fall in Northern California. The speeds reportedly dropped to that of a 1990s dial-up modem. But, according to fact-checking site PolitiFact, the FCC had an exception for mobile customers who agreed to throttling if they exceeded their data cap. Politifact rated the net neutrality violation as “half true.”

The telecom industry and other businesses that spoke out against Colorado’s net neutrality bill felt it wasn’t necessary and would hurt the small internet providers who relied on state grants to help build broadband to Colorado’s rural communities.

“An open internet is a critical issue, and the federal government has been clear that it is in their purview. (Senate Bill 78) is unnecessary and would only add to a patchwork of regulations, confusing the regulatory certainty that exists in Colorado today,” said Nicholas J. Colglazier, director of Colorado Competitive Council, and who testified against the bill. “The Federal Trade Commission has authority to enforce the open internet practices of internet service providers, and has demonstrated its willingness to do so.”

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Mark Soltes, CenturyLink’s director of government affairs, didn’t want to speculate about the impact of the pending law on company operations or its Colorado customers. But he said in a statement: “A patchwork of state-by-state regulations of the internet, which is what Colorado SB 78 calls for, is not the right approach for this important policy.”

Right now, there is no federal net neutrality law. And reliable internet access is important, said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that testified in favor of the bill.

“We come at this from a democracy perspective,” she said. “In today’s day and age, everyone needs access to the internet. The free flow of information is necessary in a functioning democracy. Today, that’s where Coloradans get their news, where they find out who’s running and who’s trying to influence their vote. We see this as a cornerstone to democracy.”

The Colorado law is similar to the former federal one in that it would prohibit ISPs from prioritizing certain content. It would also force violating ISPs that benefited from state broadband grants to refund all money received in the previous 24 months.

In the House debate this week, an amendment to allow internet service providers to filter out sexually explicit material or graphic violent content failed on a 32-32 vote in which a handful of Democrats broke ranks to side with Republicans.

After the governor signs the bill into law, Colorado’s attorney general would by Oct. 1 create guidelines on how consumers can file complaints about net neutrality violations.

“I’m really proud of the policy,” Donovan said, “and I think it’s going to stand up to the scrutiny and result in the kind of corporate behavior that we want, which is that net neutrality practices are adhered to in Colorado.”

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

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