Affordable housing, health care costs and ethics are among the many pressing issues ripe for discussion among Massachusetts lawmakers in the new year. They would do well to focus their time on these meaty topics and not on those in which they have only symbolic, if any, authority — such as net neutrality.
Clearly, the temptation to stick one’s political nose into the debate over the rules of the internet is strong. Rep. Andy Vargas, elected from Haverhill in November to fill the House seat vacated by Brian Dempsey, focused his first piece of legislation on preserving net neutrality, at least in Massachusetts. He filed a bill in December with Sen. Barbara L’Italien of Andover, and three dozen other House and Senate lawmakers, including Sen. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen, signed on as co-sponsors.
Though not on that list, acting Senate President Harriette Chandler must be sympathetic. During remarks in the Senate’s opening day session Wednesday, she set out an agenda for her colleagues that included, among other things, a reference to the Federal Communications Commission’s recent move to roll back net neutrality – a practice which has given internet companies equal access to uniform delivery speeds.
“We will continue to serve and stand as a bastion of protection for Massachusetts residents against those overreaches of the federal government that would negatively impact us,” pledged Chandler, “including to investigate and mitigate the consequences of net neutrality overreach of the FCC, and the federal tax bill.”
Chandler, a Democrat from Worcester, gave no specifics about what she meant by “net neutrality overreach” during her otherwise brief remarks. But her colleagues have called for what would essentially be a mini version of net neutrality in Massachusetts. Explaining its rationale, Vargas said last month the FCC’s recent vote hurts “small businesses, entrepreneurs and individual consumers, ultimately raising the price of internet services and limiting service options.”
The FCC’s recent decision was controversial and unleashed waves of criticism. Lawmakers, including Vargas, are clearly caught up in those waves.
But the logistics of doing what they suggest are problematic, to say the least. In the vast expanse of the internet — which transcends state borders — it’s unclear where Massachusetts would find a regulatory perch. How could it guarantee speeds of web traffic zipping through internet “clouds” not at all tethered to the commonwealth?
The question is more obviously within the purview of the Federal Communications Commission, though some argue it isn’t even that.
Implemented by the FCC just three years ago, net neutrality rules sought to create a standard among companies that manage the architecture of the internet. The idea was to prevent service providers from advantaging or disadvantaging content, such as video-streaming services, with faster or slower speeds for a host of reasons. Without the rules, service providers could presumably boost content for companies they owned or charge certain companies a premium for faster delivery.
The philosophy was that the internet is akin to a public resource, like the electric grid or radio and television airwaves, and subject to government restriction. Those who’ve argued against net neutrality — including President Trump’s pick for FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, who led the charge to repeal the rules — say the rules restrict free enterprise.
It’s a complicated debate, and it isn’t the domain of Beacon Hill. Vargas and others suggest there’s a consumer issue embedded in all of this but the effect of the FCC’s decision on the typical internet subscriber is several steps removed. Besides, the average home or business internet customer well knows the dynamic of getting faster or slower service depending upon how much they pay.
Much more of what Chandler discussed on Wednesday is within the close orbit of Beacon Hill — such as what the state is doing, or not doing, to encourage smart development that will help make housing more affordable to people who want to live here.
That’s a far more productive place for lawmakers to focus, rather than beginning the year distracted by something they cannot hope to change.