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Montana Pushes Back On FCC Ruling To Enforce Net Neutrality

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to the ongoing debate over net neutrality. You may remember that in December, the FCC rolled back Obama-era legislation aimed at regulating Internet service providers, meaning providers don't have to treat all online sites equally. They can speed up or slow down connections to sites at their discretion or charge fees for access. Now what looked like a done deal is getting pushback at the state level. Attorneys general from 21 states and the District of Columbia took legal action this week. They filed lawsuits to challenge the FCC decision on the grounds that it violates federal laws and agency protocols for protecting American consumers.

On Monday, Montana Governor Steve Bullock went a step further and became the first state official to sign an executive order imposing net neutrality in Montana. The order says that Internet service providers with state contracts must follow net neutrality principles. The governor of New York quickly became the second. Both are Democrats. And Governor Bullock is here with me now to talk more about this. Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STEVE BULLOCK: It's sure great to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So first, would you just tell us about your thought process in deciding to issue this executive order? And I'd particularly like to know why you think this is an important issue for Montana.

BULLOCK: Well, I think it's an important issue for Montana and, indeed, our entire nation. The free and open exchange of information secured by an Internet has never been more essential to our modern, social, commercial and civic life. I see it through business that the state does. I see it through the activities of my children. So to sit back and say hopefully Washington will take some action to fix what was recently broken in December was unacceptable to me. So I wanted to take action and make sure that we can guarantee for Montanans and hopefully, then ultimately for the rest of the nation, that net neutrality will continue.

MARTIN: We need to point out that the FCC ruling says explicitly that states and city governments cannot create their own net neutrality laws. So is this a largely symbolic move or do you expect it actually to have force in the marketplace?

BULLOCK: We as governors, you know, we just don't make statements. We actually try to make a difference and take action that will withstand. And from my perspective, I mean, we're not regulating anything. Through this order, the state of Montana, we're acting as a purchaser. I think that it's legally sound. And the FCC can't challenge the fact that what we're doing is just as a market - I mean, the FCC chair even said that individual consumers, not the federal government, should be making these decisions. I, as overseeing an enterprise called state government in Montana, is making that individual decision that this is the expectation that I'm going to uphold if I'm going to be purchasing services from companies.

MARTIN: The president of the American Cable Association told The New York Times, quote, "following a patchwork of legislation or regulation is costly and makes it even harder to invest in networks." You have some response to that?

BULLOCK: Yeah. I mean, internet service providers have always faced 50 sets of tort laws, consumer protection laws, property laws, tax laws. We're not proposing any changes from what certainly existed on December 13 and what consumers expect even today.

MARTIN: So you see this almost like an RFP, which is that if you want to do business in my state, these are the guidelines that you have to follow?

BULLOCK: That's exactly right. Montana alone, we purchase close to $50 million a year of Internet services. And just saying that if you want to provide those services, expectation is that you'll disclose the provisions around net neutrality. And you'll also adhere to the expectations that most Montanans and most Americans want, and that's a free and open Internet.

MARTIN: You have any concern about a backlash which is that service providers saying, I mean, this is a different marketplace entirely but in the same way that, you know, health insurers are pulling out of certain states where they find the terms unfavorable to them?

BULLOCK: Not really for two reasons, one of which is that, again, this is what those service providers said even before the rollback in December is that they had no expectation or anticipation of changing their plans. And secondary, what we're seeing is - well, some might say, oh, Montana is not big enough to influence the overall market. When other states like New York join in our effort, and I'm certainly hopeful that states across this country will join, then it really does become a market decision where certainly they may say, oh, we don't want to play in Montana. But if they're saying we don't want play in New York and any additional other states, then it's a business decision to block content or to slow things down that they would be making. But I don't think it's one that certainly their consumers in any of those states would be too happy about.

MARTIN: That is Governor Steve Bullock of Montana. We reached him in his office in Helena. Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BULLOCK: Thanks for having me on today, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.