Update: The net neutrality bill passed the House on April 4 and is now on its way to Gov. Jared Polis, who is expected to sign it. In the end, House lawmakers did not pass any amendments to the bill. This story was originally published on March 12, 2019.
A net neutrality bill that would impose new regulations on companies seeking to provide Internet services to rural households in Colorado has cleared its first hurdle.
The bill, which passed the Senate last week along party lines, states that Internet service providers accepting state grant money may not selectively block, slow down or speed up online content. The regulations would affect nearly two dozen service providers hoping to serve roughly 150,000 households, or 7 percent of all households in Colorado, where Internet access is limited or nonexistent.
The bill is the beginning of a broader effort by state Democrats to protect equal access to online content and ensure that broadband companies treat all websites and content the same. Net neutrality is the principle that the Internet is like a public utility, and that companies with deep pockets should not be able to buy special access.
In 2017, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era regulations that barred companies from profiting by blocking, slowing or speeding up content or otherwise manipulating Internet access. Since then, states have been stepping up with their own net neutrality protections. Of the five states that have already adopted net neutrality laws, at least two are fighting legal challenges by the federal government and broadband companies that claim only the federal government can regulate the Internet.
Colorado’s bill aims to thread a needle by limiting regulation to companies that accept state grant money. The bill also states companies that follow net neutrality principles will be given preference when contracting with the state.
Some supporters worry it will be difficult to enforce the proposed regulations.
Under the bill, the only explicit role for the Colorado attorney general, who enforces consumer protection laws, is to come up with “written guidance” to help consumers file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission if they feel their service is being manipulated. But the obvious problem, supporters say, is that all five members of the FTC board have been appointed by President Trump, who has indicated he opposes state efforts to enforce net neutrality.
Even so, supporters acknowledge that with more “teeth,” the measure could attract to more lawsuits from the industry or the federal government.
“Does it look on its surface as strong as other states? No. But those states are getting sued,” Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail who sponsored the bill, told The Colorado Independent.
But as the bill heads to the House, supporters are considering a possible amendment that would strengthen the role of the attorney general, said Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver who is sponsoring the bill.
A spokesperson for the attorney general said Phil Weiser will not comment until the bill is taken up by a House committee.
The bill received light pushback from Internet service providers. Early in the debate, some were concerned it would penalize companies for unknowingly making mistakes, such as slowing down bandwidth due to high traffic volumes. Others said Internet regulations are the federal government’s responsibility.
Larger companies like Comcast stayed out of the public debate, in the main, partly because the proposed changes to the measure mostly apply to companies that seek grants from the state.
Republican lawmakers, who voted against the bill, raised few concerns during a floor debate. Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, indicated the bill could stifle free-market innovation.
Said Lundeen, “Sometimes the unintended consequence of creating boundaries and barriers is in fact that you lose access to that which you are in fact trying to promote.”
The bill now goes to the House, where lawmakers are expected to add amendments. Gov. Jared Polis, who has advocated for net neutrality as a congressman, is expected to support it.