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States hold key to net neutrality

Oregon's Legislature recently passed a net neutrality bill by strong bipartisan margins. House Bill 4155 now is awaiting the signature of Gov. Kate Brown, who previously has expressed support for the concept.

The bill was filed in response to the Federal Communications Commission's decision to repeal Obama-era regulations that aimed to guarantee equal access to the internet.

Underlying this is the recognition that the internet has become a necessity more than a frill for many, if not most, Americans. Students need it to do homework; business people need it to conduct business; physicians need it to communicate with patients, and vice versa; some government agencies require that various documents be filed online.

The internet doesn't just connect people with friends and families, it enables Oregon businesses to buy and sell goods and services all over the world, offers entertainment at the touch of the finger, is integral to public-safety operations, and gives Oregonians living miles from the nearest town a link to just about any information or product they need.

Net neutrality requires that internet service providers treat all websites, apps and other services on their networks equally. They are not allowed to favor those with money and power by providing slower service to those without. It also bars ISPs from blocking opinions or facts that the provider disagrees with or finds controversial, as has happened in the past.

Opponents of net neutrality argue that net neutrality will stifle innovation. But some of the greatest innovators in the world are American tech entrepreneurs, the vast majority whom are lined up solidly in favor of net neutrality.

Whether the bill will accomplish its goal of providing equal access to all once it becomes law is still very much a question mark.

The bill would bar government agencies and offices from contracting with any broadband internet service provider that doesn't observe the principles of net neutrality.

This may be problematic for a couple of reasons. No. 1, Oregon is a tiny market, so it's quite possible that ISPs simply won't care.

Second, the state government could be in the uncomfortable position of finding itself without internet service if the ISPs decide to thumb their noses at Oregon.

Oregon's best bet might be to join forces with other states that support net neutrality — starting with its West Coast neighbors — to gain more clout. Washington, for example, is home to dozens of tech companies, including Amazon and Microsoft. On Tuesday it became the first state to pass a net neutrality law, barring ISPs from blocking content or interfering with online traffic. Almost 30 other states also are in the process of taking action through state legislatures, lawsuits or executive orders. And there is a growing pressure for Congress to use the Congressional Review Act to overrule the FCC's decision.

Oregon needs to join forces with other states to present a united front on this; the stakes are too high to do otherwise.