NASHVILLE — Two Tennessee Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday introduced legislation aimed at forcing major internet providers to maintain "net neutrality" in their operations or face losing state and local government contracts while also leaving the companies open to being sued.
"The CEO of AT&T, the CEO of Comcast shouldn't be able to decide what websites, what services, what piece of information over the internet everyday Tennesseans have access to," Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, told reporters at a news conference announcing the bill. "Only everyday Tennesseans should be able to decide that."
The bill, carried by Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, in the House, is one of a growing number of efforts by states after the Federal Communications Commission's repeal last month of 2015 rules that maintained a free and open internet.
Net neutrality rules bar internet providers from creating "slow" and "fast" lanes for online content in which companies such as Netflix, YouTube or Amazon or even heavy consumers like gamers could pay more for quicker download speeds.
On Monday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, issued an executive order saying telecommunications companies run the risk of losing state contracts if they block or charge more for quicker delivery of websites to customers.
Clemmons said Tennessee "has the most resourceful, innovative and hardest- working folks around and they deserve an equal opportunity to participate in the 21st century. Our net neutrality legislation will protect consumers, ensure equal access to information, foster opportunity for innovation and ensure a level playing field for our startup community and many others."
In an email, Joe Burgan, AT&T Tennessee's director of public affairs, said the company "is committed to operating our network in an open and transparent way, and we will always do so."
"While AT&T supports the principles of an open internet, we favor federal legislation to ensure that there is one set of rules that applies to all internet companies, and includes internet and privacy protections for consumers."
He warned that a "patchwork of different state rules would confuse consumers, harm competition, and impede innovation and investment." AT&T "is proud of our commitment to an open internet and we stand ready to work with the Congress and other internet companies and consumer groups in the coming months to permanently protect the open internet."
The Tennessee bill applies to internet service providers that make broadband internet access available to individuals, businesses, government or other customers in Tennessee.
It would prohibit service providers from engaging in a number of practices, including blocking lawful content and applications subject to "reasonable" network management practices.
Other banned activity includes "impairing or degrading" lawful internet traffic and engaging in "paid prioritization or providing preferential treatment of some internet traffic to any internet customer."
Internet service providers would be required to publicly disclose their network management practices, performance and commercial terms of access in a manner "sufficient" for consumers to make informed choices.
The Tennessee Public Utility Commission would be required to promulgate rules for internet service providers to certify they are providing broadband access in accordance with the legislation.
Violators could face a one-year suspension of their government contracts, but the Public Utility Commission could waive that if the provider demonstrates that paid prioritization of websites and services "would provide some significant public interest benefit and would not harm the open nature of the internet."
Anyone injured by a violation or the Tennessee Attorney General's Division of Consumer Advocate could file a complaint with the Public Utility Commission. Commissioners would be empowered to issue cease-and-desist orders and impose civil penalties up to $2,000 each day a violation occurs and also seek additional action in court.
Consumers also can sue.
The New York Times reported this week that other states, including New York and Rhode Island, are also trying to use government contracts to regulate internet providers. Meanwhile, the newspaper reported, there have been multiple lawsuits filed by state attorneys general as well as public interest groups in at least 20 states.
After last month's FCC decision to revoke the Obama-era net neutrality rules, David Wade, president of EPB, which provides internet services to more than 94,000 Chattanooga households and businesses, said the city-owned utility will continue to uphold net neutrality standards.
But David L. Cohen, Comcast's senior vice president and chief diversity officer, in December praised the FCC's adoption of its "Restoring Internet Freedom Order."
He said it marked a return "to a regulatory environment that allowed the Internet to thrive for decades by eliminating burdensome Title II regulations and opening the door for increased investment and digital innovation."
The FCC action "does not mark the 'end of the Internet as we know it;' rather it heralds in a new era of light regulation that will benefit consumers," Cohen said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
This story was updated Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.