Some Alaska lawmakers are pushing back against the federal repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules with legislation that would make such rules the law at the state level.
Two bills working their way through the Legislature would prevent internet service providers in Alaska from slowing down or blocking access to whichever lawful websites they choose, and prohibit paid prioritization of certain sites.
Civil liberties groups have said net neutrality is necessary to protect free speech online, foster innovation and treat data on the internet equally. Alaska's telecom industry opposes the legislation and says it should be a federal matter.
"The best place for the uncertainty over net neutrality to be resolved is in Congress," wrote Christine O'Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association, in a letter to state lawmakers. "It alone has the power to adopt clear internet rules."
Alaska isn't alone in its effort. Washington recently became the first state to pass its own net neutrality rules. Several other states have efforts to protect net neutrality, according to The Associated Press.
"I just think in the state of Alaska, if we don't do something and don't ensure net neutrality, we're going to have more expensive internet and slower speeds," said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, the main sponsor for House Bill 277.
A group of Democrats have signed on as sponsors for that bill, and its counterpart Senate Bill 160 has bipartisan support. Alaska lawmakers have also introduced joint resolutions urging Congress to overturn the Federal Communication Commission's decision to end net neutrality protections.
GCI and Alaska Communications, the state's two largest telecommunications companies, both say they are committed to an "open internet" but both also oppose the state legislation. In a Feb. 14 letter in opposition to HB 277, an attorney for GCI told lawmakers the company does not block, prevent or impair customers' freedom to direct their online activity, and stands by that commitment.
"Passage of the proposed legislation will not achieve further clarity on internet oversight," the letter said, "but instead will result in even more regulatory uncertainty, which in turn raises the costs of doing business in Alaska and can be expected to result in unnecessary litigation over an inherently federal matter."
GCI also said it is willing to support congressional legislation on net neutrality. Alaska Communications also said in a letter that any laws about net neutrality need to happen at the federal level.
"Attempts by individual states to pass disparate legislation can result in a patchwork of possibly inconsistent state laws," that letter said.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to gut the net neutrality rules, which were put in place in 2015. The change is set to go into effect in April.
In January, a group that represents Google, Facebook, Netflix and other tech giants said it would fight against the repeal of net neutrality, The New York Times reported.
Barbara van Schewick, a net neutrality expert and professor at Stanford Law School, offered the analogy that "net neutrality is making sure the internet becomes more like the electricity network and not more like cable."
In areas with only one internet provider, if that company blocks an application, "you have no other option," she said.
Though some things internet companies would be allowed to do without net neutrality rules might be obvious — such as blocking a website — others might be less visible, said van Schewick.
"When you block something everybody notices," she said, "versus when you slow it down, then it's less easy to see, but people will react to it and switch to something that works better."
Another issue at the heart of net neutrality, van Schewick said, is censorship. One example she gave was from 2005 in Canada, when telecom company Telus "blocked access to a union website that promoted a labor strike against the internet company," news website Slate reported.
Alongside legislation that would impose net neutrality rules on internet service providers in Alaska, there's a pair of bills that would require internet service providers who contract with the state for business to adhere to such rules. The broader net neutrality legislation, if passed, would basically make that narrower proposal moot.
"If we don't do something and don't ensure net neutrality, we're going to have more expensive internet and slower speeds and I can't see that happening when Alaska is such an internet-necessary state," said Kawasaki.
In a House Labor and Commerce Committee meeting earlier this month in Juneau, some lawmakers questioned whether HB 277 is necessary if the net neutrality rules don't go away until next month.
"I'm concerned we're presenting here a solution, running around looking for a problem," said Rep. Chris Birch, R-Anchorage. "I don't think we have a problem with the internet." Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, echoed that.
Gov. Bill Walker's policy team is reviewing the net neutrality proposals, his press secretary Austin Baird said in an emailed statement, adding that the governor typically doesn't comment on legislation that is in motion.