"They're just basically threatening to shut down access to the internet to hundreds of thousands of people, at the same time working to limit their own impact," the state senator, who introduced the law, said in an interview.
As another piece of so-called “net neutrality” legislation has faltered across the country, an industry group in Maine is suing the state for a law that requires internet service providers to show people how their web surfing habits are collected and used.
The lawsuit claims that the law violates the free speech rights of ISPs and their customers by “imposing prior restraint on free speech and imposing costs and burdens on service providers, which are unconstitutional under the First Amendment,” according to a statement Monday by Free Press, a digital-freedom advocacy group that helped pass the law.
It’s the latest blow to efforts to preserve a federal net neutrality rule that banned internet providers from favoring or slowing web traffic, and it follows a failed effort last week in Washington, D.C., where Maine Rep. Greg Lewis said he hoped the bill would “start a national conversation” on net neutrality and help lay the groundwork for a national repeal.
Lewis’ House bill sponsored by Maine State Rep. Eliot Cutler, who is also president of Free Press, died on the final night of debate in the House Energy and Telecommunications Committee. Lewis was openly critical of the proposal and said he found it too cumbersome and would prefer “to find a new way of dealing with net neutrality.”
This week, Lewis urged Maine Gov. Paul LePage to veto the bill. But LePage has been in favor of a repeal of the national network neutrality rule, having said as much during a TV interview last year.
Lewis would like to see a state’s independence on such issues but said that his push has the potential of “creating a wedge in Maine’s decision to repeal the FCC rules.” If a state backs away from its attempt to keep an open internet, he predicted that it would be a linchpin in efforts to get the federal rule reinstated.
In the wake of the rule’s repeal last year, which took effect in June, cities and states around the country have crafted their own rules to protect consumers’ web access.
A new federal report on the expected impact of the repeal found that the private sector will have to put in place additional infrastructure and will need to invest $184 billion in the United States. As a result, the FCC projects that broadband speeds will increase from an average of 21 Mbps today to 40 Mbps in 2021.
Maine Senate President George Angus, a Democrat who also supports state law, said in an interview that broadband service providers “are in the business of generating broadband service revenue, and if they’re involved in a debate around net neutrality, the customers could actually pay more for access.”
The Maine Broadband Association, which filed the lawsuit, criticized the way Lewis’ law was written. It said the legislation actually was pre-empted by federal law and included a broad definition of internet service.
“Congress has determined that the 'Internet shall include any lawful website, computer application, system, or service which a broadband provider or, for that same purpose, may connect a broadband customer to,”’ the association said in its statement.
Tom Goldman, Maine’s state attorney general, said he would defend the law.
“Our goal is to ensure that every Minnesotan has access to a broadband Internet access service so they can connect to the entire range of communications options, which includes their local libraries and independent newspapers and streaming video services,” he said in a statement.
The Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act was designed to protect consumer privacy and ensure security of digital information. In 2017, Maine added that a broadband provider’s web data collection practices must be made public. At the same time, an independent study by Free Press found that service providers were not transparent enough about how their private internet information was collected and used.
People would be able to find and inspect web browsing history through a website created by the Maine Broadband Association, the group said in its statement. The association said it did not object to a privacy opt-out option.
The group, which was formed in 2014 as a “privacy advocate” to help customers, questioned whether the “broadband” part of its name accurately reflected its role.
“We represent consumers who want broadband but don’t have broadband service,” it said.