Nicole Flatow is the editor of CityLab. She was previously U.S. enterprise editor at The Guardian.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is leading a new coalition of 12 cities in a pledge to protect net neutrality—and shame companies who won’t.
More than a dozen cities have pledged to use their authority to protect net neutrality, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday.
Speaking to a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) moderated by CityLab, de Blasio said cities are committing not to contract with internet service providers that do not honor net neutrality principles, as part of an “open internet pledge.”
“We’re gonna use our economic power to force the hands of these companies,” de Blasio said. “We’re gonna build a movement among other cities.”
The announcement is the latest move to push back against the Federal Communications Commission’s decision late last year to get rid of net neutrality regulations. The ruling eliminates equal access requirements, opening the door for ISPs to block content, throttle speeds to some sites or services, or give preferential treatment to others.
“What we are talking about is controlling information, and controlling data,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also signing the pledge.
In its ruling, the FCC explicitly banned states and cities from making their own laws on net neutrality, saying that regulating the internet is clearly a federal issue. But already, states have not been deterred.
Last week, Washington became the first state to pass its own net neutrality law, imposing a direct prohibition on broadband companies from blocking legal content and services, among other things. While that law may run afoul of the FCC’s order, other states have taken a different approach that they believe is still within their power: executive orders mandating that state government agencies will only do business with internet providers that abide by net neutrality principles.
De Blasio’s proposal mirrors the executive order issued by his state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. De Blasio’s announcement means New York City agencies will not do business with noncompliant ISPs either. Because these orders are limited to government contracts, however, they don’t regulate how ISPs conduct private business, and they wouldn’t directly affect the internet access for most individuals and businesses.
De Blasio estimates that New York City will spend “half a billion dollars in the next few years” on ISP contracts, and he plans to use other mechanisms to pressure companies.
De Blasio’s announcement also included a commitment to “name and shame” ISP providers who do not comply with net neutrality principles.
“We need to help consumers know and citizens know that they don’t have to work with those companies. They don’t have to give those companies support either,” he said.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, the third participant in the panel Sunday night, said the purpose of the project and other mayoral collaborations is as much to impose pressure for change as to impose new laws.
“We can talk about the powers that exist in relationship between cities and the federal government and the states,” Adler said, referencing the larger theme of the panel discussion on city power. “But one of the most significant powers that the mayors have is to be able to use the power of the bully pulpit.”
In addition to Wheeler and Adler, who announced the pledge with de Blasio on Sunday, signatories also include: Mark Farrell (San Francisco), Jacob Frey (Minneapolis), Sly James (Kansas City, Missouri), Sam Liccardo (San Jose), Ron Nirenberg (San Antonio), Catherine Pugh (Baltimore), Barney Seney (Putnam, Connecticut), Paul Soglin (Madison, Wisconsin) and Chair Zach Friend (Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors).
It is not unlikely that the FCC or internet providers would challenge local net neutrality laws, and the agency has preempted cities before when they attempted to expand their municipal broadband with mixed success. Meanwhile, a coalition of state attorneys general filed a lawsuit to stop the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules.
Asked whether he thought the cities would prompt additional lawsuits, de Blasio laughed at the volume of lawsuits against the federal government that his city is already entertaining. Wheeler, whose relatively smaller city does not have the resources of New York City, touted collaborations between mayors like this one as enabling cities to take risks that might lead to litigation.
The mayors urged individuals to go to a new website for Mayors for Net Neutrality and petition their city to join the Open Internet Pledge.
“You look at the internet and there is nothing that has contributed to global democratization more,” said Adler. “There is no compromise of that that should be allowed.”