Seattleites clearly know how to get loud at a sporting event. Now, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell wants her constituents to be equally vocal about supporting net neutrality.
Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state and former RealNetworks vice president, convened a roundtable discussion at the Moz offices in downtown Seattle on Monday morning as she prepares to speak at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing this week on net neutrality.
Participants included Moz CEO Sarah Bird; Cheezburger co-founder Ben Huh; WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler; UW law professor Ryan Calo; Porch COO Asha Sharma; Strange Loop Games Executive Producer John Krajewski; and Drew Atkins, the Policy and Communications Director for the Washington Tech Alliance.
The 30-minute talk was designed to help Cantwell gain more insight from leaders within the local tech community and learn why they think an open Internet is beneficial. Advocates of net neutrality — which included everyone inside the Moz conference room on Monday — say that all Internet traffic should be treated equally and not with a two-tiered system that would divert service into fast and slow lanes depending on whether a company or content provider paid for preferential treatment of its traffic.
“We need to get people really going in the Northwest about what a two-tiered Internet means for us, and what we want to see as far as ways to protect this innovation economy,” Cantwell told GeekWire after the panel discussion.
The FCC is slated to hold a critical vote on net neutrality next month. One of the proposals on the agenda will be whether to reclassify broadband Internet as a utility, a major change that would give the FCC the regulatory power to ensure equal access to broadband.
President Obama urged the FCC to take that step in November, calling on the agency to classify broadband Internet as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, and “implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”
Bird, who heads up Seattle-based digital marketing startup Moz, told Cantwell how detrimental a two-tiered Internet would be for her company. She’s concerned that her investors would be wary of giving Moz more capital if net neutrality indeed vanishes, since they’ll be focused on helping portfolio companies maneuver through new laws and regulations related to a new, two-tiered Internet.
“They’ll need to save their funds for current investments because they don’t know what will happen to them,” Bird explained. “There will be more friction, and there will be a chilling effect.”
The lack of extra investment would also result in fewer hirings, Bird said, and the two-tiered Internet could also cause Moz to lose customers who may be less willing to pay for online services due to new regulations.
“I’ll have a double whammy — it will affect not only my normal funding sources, but I’ll be bleeding customers,” Bird said.
Huh, CEO of Seattle-based humor site Cheezburger, noted how creating more complicated Internet services in the U.S. could cause business environments in other countries to flourish as investment dollars move outside America.
“If the EU says, ‘you know what, we have net neutrality, you don’t have to worry about it,’ then capital will shift from the U.S.,” Huh said. “And then talent starts to move, too. This isn’t just about who gets what content for how much. This is a fight for fairness and this is a competitive issue we have to think about globally. We are no longer the monopoly with startups.”
Cantwell, a longtime supporter of defending net neutrality, said she’ll share concerns like these to lawmakers in Washington D.C. in hopes of defending the right to a free and open Internet in the U.S.
“These guys gave me a lot of viewpoints on how to position the debate on very specific details, and then some big pictures things, too,” she said. “That’s exactly what I needed for the [Senate Commerce Committee].”
Cantwell added that she “really counts on Seattle to express its opinion.”
“There have been moments when the FCC tries to roll out an idea and they give four days notice,” she said. “Then they come to Seattle and we fill Town Hall. That’s what we need. If this decision comes out and it’s problematic, I hope people will be loud as they were on topics like SOPA and PIPA.”