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EDITORIAL: Jump into the fight, Illinois, to keep the internet free

A protester holds a sign that reads "Resist the FCC Text: INTERNET To: 52886" at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in Washington, Thursday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

If the federal courts and Congress fail to act, it might fall to California and New York to lead the fight to keep the internet free and open to all Americans.

And Illinois should jump into that battle.

At stake is your right to be treated as an equal online. Also at stake could be Illinois’ growing tech industry.

On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission handed over the keys to the internet to the handful of big companies that provide online access to most Americans. By eliminating so-called “net neutrality” rules — the idea that everyone on the internet must be treated the same, without being hit up for extra money — the FCC made it OK for internet providers to decide which websites and services their customers can access and how expensive and fast that access will be.

EDITORIAL

Want to watch Netflix? Sorry that’s going to cost extra. Or maybe you won’t be able to watch it at any price because the only internet service provider in your area has its own competitor to Netflix.

Want to visit a website whose politics don’t sit well with the internet provider? Sorry, it’s not available. Or, if it is, the loading speed could be so slow that you’ll spend hours staring at that spinning rainbow pinwheel.

Goodbye to a vibrant, free and open online world. Welcome to a dollar-first cyberhighway of monopoly and corporate rule.

The FCC’s action is a huge setback for the free flow of ideas and information. It’s also bad for small companies with new ideas that can’t afford to pay high fees to internet providers for premium service.

Some emerging companies might be shut out altogether if they happen to compete with services owned by the providers. Free competition won’t help much because large swaths of the nation have only one internet provider.

California and New York are home to thriving internet startup communities that could be crushed by the big companies that the FCC has empowered to make the rules. To protect that flourishing startup world, lawmakers from both states are calling for bicoastal standards for net neutrality. Internet providers that want to operate in those states would have to abide by those standards.

This feels counterintuitive. We know. The internet is not about to stop dead at a state’s borders, right? But there is precedent.

Because California’s economy is so big, it can’t be ignored by the largest companies. The state’s high standards in other areas already have become, in effect, national standards.

As the nation’s biggest single market for automobiles, for example, California — joined by 12 other states — set tougher emissions than required by federal law. And auto manufacturers went along with it.

Labels that warn of chemicals in a variety of products, including sand intended for children’s sandboxes, appear on store shelves throughout the nation because they are required in at least one state — California.

Whether California and New York — and, we hope, Illinois — will prevail if their legislatures enact laws to preserve net neutrality is an open question. But it’s possible they could win with the argument, legal experts say, that they are acting to safeguard their own residents and the tech companies within their borders — and that the internet providers would not have to follow their rules in other states.

That’s an argument Illinois should be making, too.

We don’t know where Gov. Rauner stands on this. His office didn’t respond by late Monday to a request for a comment. But we’re hoping that he, as well as both sides of the aisle in the Legislature, will see this as a bipartisan opportunity to protect the free and open cyberhighway of free markets.

Meanwhile, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and other attorneys general are appealing the FCC’s departure from good sense. Private advocacy groups also are preparing to go to court. Even if the courts don’t step in, Congress could enshrine the concept of net neutrality into law if it wanted to go to bat for average people. But there is no sign of that happening.

When polled, the great majority of Americans say they want an open internet, a preference the FCC simply ignored. Moreover, America is a leader in the global online world because of the creativity, risk-taking and unending competition an open internet nurtures.

Anything that undermines that is bad for Illinois, bad for the country, and bad for the spirit of creative free enterprise.

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