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Washington state’s net neutrality law is the beginning of a big headache for Internet providers

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs his state's net neutrality bill. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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Washington has become the first state in the nation to enact its own net neutrality rules that impose strict requirements on Internet providers, making it illegal for broadband companies to block or slow down websites.

Signed Monday by Gov. Jay Inslee (D), the new law reflects a growing effort by states to counteract the Federal Communications Commission's decision to repeal the federal government's net neutrality rules. Along with a slightly different bill recently passed by Oregon's legislature, the Washington state law marks the beginning of what analysts say could soon become a massive headache for Internet service providers (ISPs): a jumbled mix of state and federal rules that may be looser in some places and tougher in others.

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“One of the fears of Internet service providers is a patchwork of different state regulations,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst. “It’s much easier to manage and work from one national set.”

The Federal Communications Commission voted to roll back its net neutrality rules in December, arguing that the regulations were unnecessarily restrictive. But many states have said the rules are vital to protecting consumers in an era of rising consolidation among ISPs and media companies.

“The states have a full right to protect their citizens,” said Inslee as he signed the bill, which goes into effect June 6.

In addition to banning ISPs from blocking or slowing Web content, the Washington law prohibits them from speeding up apps and services in exchange for money from developers and website owners.

The legislation differs somewhat from that of its neighbor. Oregon's net neutrality bill, which awaits the signature of Gov. Kate Brown (D), does not impose explicit bans on blocking and slowing down, referred to as throttling, by ISPs. But it requires state officials to take net neutrality into account when contracting with Internet providers for service to government buildings. The same approach has been explored in states such as New York and Montana, whose governors have signed executive orders seeking to use the state's purchasing power as a way to shape ISP behavior.

Broadband industry groups have said that having to treat consumers differently in different states would be painful for Internet providers.

“As we have cautioned repeatedly, we simply cannot have 50 different regulations governing [broadband],” said USTelecom, a major trade association for Internet providers. “It’s time for Congress to step up and enact legislation to make permanent and sustainable rules governing net neutrality.”

Internet providers had pushed hard for the FCC repeal, claiming the rules prevented them from investing in upgrades to their infrastructure. And in rolling back the regulations, the FCC included rules that aim to block states from enacting their own versions of net neutrality.

That puts states and the FCC on a collision course, which many analysts say will lead to a court battle. At the heart of the legal fight will be a question about how far the FCC can go to preempt the states. The FCC declined to comment for this report.