Montana tech companies push Congress for rules protecting open Internet

Jason Williams, CEO of Blackfoot, a communications company based in Missoula, is urging Montana’s congressional leaders to make permanent rules protecting net neutrality. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Two communication firms and a technology-based startup asked Montana’s congressional delegation on Tuesday to make permanent federal laws that keep the Internet free and open to all users, and to ensure that Google, Amazon and other corporate giants aren’t awarded an unfair advantage through the absence of legislation.

With representatives of Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines in attendance, the leaders of Blackfoot Communications and Inspired Classroom, both of Missoula, and Treasure State Internet and Telegraph of Bozeman and Helena, likened the battle for net neutrality to a modern-day fight for freedom.

It is, Treasure State co-founder and CEO Eric Fulton said, a basic human right – one that Congress should uphold.

“Knowledge is freedom, knowledge is ability, and it’s necessary to have for a modern civilization to develop,” Fulton said. “Any fight against the freeing of information to individuals, corporations and others is a fight against growth.”

Fulton and other members in attendance at Tuesday’s discussion described net neutrality as a concept, one that believes in providing free access to information without slowing or throttling content, modifying that content or selectively distributing it.

It means that all people have equal access to the same information and that large corporations can’t pick winners and losers, or block non-advertisers from appearing on the Internet.

“Blackfoot supports a free and open Internet, and we always have supported a free and open Internet,” said Blackfoot CEO Jason Williams. “In my mind, that means no blocking of Internet traffic, no throttling of Internet traffic, and no unfair discrimination, or giving priority to any application developer or customer using the Internet.”

Eric Fulton, CEO and co-founder of Treasure State Internet & Telegraph, based in Bozeman and Helena, likened the fight for a free and open Internet to a fight for freedom. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In recent years, net neutrality has been highly politicized while its future has stood at the mercy of changing presidential administrations. The Internet is governed by FCC rules intended to regulate 20th century public utilities, such as Mountain Bell, and not 21st century broadband.

Industry leaders in Montana, joined by technology-based startups, believe that current rules governing the Internet are vague and confusing. They also risk giving corporate giants free reign to regulate the Internet to their own advantage, and not at the interest of users.

“We’re already seeing the slow erosion of freedom on the Internet,” said Fulton, who cited Verizon and its practice of capping data, blocking websites and offering quality streaming service to its own products but not that of its competitors, such as Netflix.

“They’re using their unfair advantage in the industry to try and squeeze out additional dollars,” Fulton said. “They’re effectively profiting off the information freedom of people and they’ll squeeze it down till it’s gone. It’s why net neutrality is crucial – the idea that the information we access on the Internet is ours and that we’re free to do with it whatever we want.”

Aside from the philosophical principles governing net neutrality, maintaining a free and open Internet may also offer smaller businesses, including those in Montana, the chance to grow while creating parity among broadband providers.

Under today’s confusing rules, Williams said, Blackfoot is regulated differently than cable broadband providers, who in turn are regulated differently than mobile wireless broadband providers. Satellite broadband providers and startups have yet another set of rules.

“We’re regulated in all these different ways,” Williams said. “If we get parity in how broadband providers are regulated, that gives me certainty then to operate the business, make investment and provide the services with some long-term thinking in what our customers want.”

Jenni Graff, the economic development director for the Missoula Economic Partnership, said the state’s tech-industry is booming and depends upon net neutrality. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Williams believes a permanent solution to net neutrality will also safeguard customer data and create fairness among businesses that utilize the Internet. While Blackfoot has never blocked or throttled the Internet, he said, some competitors do.

Recently, he said, Google was fined $2 billion for giving priority to its own advertisers over everyone else. Amazon, which just purchased Whole Foods, has also patented technology to prevent customers from comparing prices from inside an Amazon store.

“If you think about Blackfoot or other small Montana businesses, we can’t compete with those behemoths,” said Williams. “Net neutrality legislation would really level the playing field so all providers have a fair shake in the market.”

Equal access to the Internet could have positive implications for Montana’s economy and the businesses that fuel it, according to Jenni Graff, economic development director for the Missoula Economic Partnership.

The state’s technology sector is booming and its future is bright, so long as it has room to grow. Last year, Montana’s tech industry was responsible for roughly $1 billion in revenue.

“When you drill down even further, you see the majority of that growth takes place in firms that claim between one and six employees,” said Graff. “We know it’s the startup economy that’s fueling and driving the tech sector in Montana. Fair and equal access to the Internet is important to us.”

Alli DePuy, co-founder and CEO of The Inspired Classroom in Missoula, said maintaining net neutrality and the principles that govern it is crucial to the future of her own enterprise.

Inspired Classroom connects students over the Internet with professors, mentors and coaches. That gives rural students an opportunity to learn, no matter where they live.

Alli DePuy, co-owner of Inspired Classroom, said that without regulations guiding net neutrality, large corporations will restrict content, withhold knowledge and stifle small businesses. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“In a world where knowledge is coming at us so quickly, we need to stay relevant,” said DePuy. “We believe that we need to help students see the world through both a critical and creative lens, and to have access to current, reliable and unbiased content.”

Ensuring the FCC promotes and maintains fair competition and innovation, regardless of who holds power in Washington, is something Montana’s delegation should support, she said.

“It speaks very much to the small business mentality and entrepreneurship,” said DePuy. “I fear that in a world where there are no regulations concerning net neutrality, we’re going to create a scenario where large corporations are allowed to restrict content, withhold knowledge, and create a system of monopolies that will stifle small businesses.”