Updated May 9 at 11 p.m. with comment from Sen. Claire McCaskill — Last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality, a set of regulations intended to protect internet users. Now, leaders of eight St. Louis co-working spaces are calling on Missouri congressional lawmakers to join national efforts that could reverse the commission’s decision.
Their call came Wednesday as U.S. Sen. Ed. Markey, D-Mass., filed a petition that would force the U.S. Senate to vote on the future of net neutrality. The 2015 regulations bar internet providers from controlling internet speeds, among other things. The Senate must vote by June 12 on whether to allow or block the FCC’s repeal.
Nebula Coworking owner Jason Deem coordinated with the founders of T-REX, HIVE44, Nexcore, CIC St. Louis, CLAIM, UCity Coworking and TechArtista to write an open letter supporting the measure.
Repealing net neutrality would hurt co-working space clients including small businesses trying to innovate in technology markets and nonprofit organizations seeking social reforms, according to the founders’ letter.
Deem said he was spurred to coordinate the letter by the concerns of small business owners and activists who are members at Nebula.
“The main issue is that the repeal of net neutrality could put small businesses and start-ups at a considerable disadvantage compared to large businesses that could afford to pay more for services,” he said.
The letter is addressed to U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt and U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner.
Asked for comment, a representative for Blunt’s referred tothe Republican senator's December 2017 statement where he supported repealing net neutrality. Blunt wrote that the net neutrality rules "created a barrier to the investment and innovation we need to grow our economy and close the digital divide between rural towns and bigger cities."
Democrat McCaskill's office responded to a request for comment by referring to a statement from January when she co-sponsored a Senate proposal to maintain net neutrality rules. In the statement she said that "consumers should have protected, free, and open access to the online content of their choosing.”
The Consumers Council of Missouri is among the concerned Nebula members. The nonprofit group work to inform Missourians about health care, personal finance and home utility issues.
Cara Spencer, executive director of the Council, said the potential for internet providers to block content could jeopardize the nonprofit’s work. Spencer also serves as alderwoman of St. Louis' 20th ward.
“What happens if the content we put out is not in the best interest of the internet service providers or those that work well with them? Could they block content?” Spencer asked. “This is really a threat not only to consumers but to free speech, or anyone who’s advocating on issues that may not be popular with the folks that can pay for preferential internet access.”
She said net neutrality’s repeal could also make the internet look more like politics, where those with the most money have the ability to exert outsized influence. Spencer said the council is also concerned that if internet providers could charge companies for access fees, those increased costs could be passed on to customers.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who voted against the rules in 2015, has argued that repealing net neutrality would instead help consumers by creating more competition and encouraging internet providers to invest in networks in low-income areas.
The letter also urges Missouri’s representatives to reject bills that wouldn’t let states develop independent net neutrality laws and back an amicus brief for a potential lawsuit drafted by U.S. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Markey.
Reps. Clay, a Democrat, and Wagner a Republican, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
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