Washington tech leaders to Cantwell: Net neutrality is key to innovation economy

SEATTLE -- U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) heard from leaders in the Puget Sound tech economy who called for strong rules to preserve "net neutrality" and the innovation economy that depends on it. Representatives from Seattle companies such as Moz, Cheezburger, Inc., Strange Loop Games, and Porch, highlighted concerns about how a two-tiered Internet could create higher costs for startups and consumers.

SEATTLE — U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) heard from leaders in the Puget Sound tech economy who called for strong rules to preserve “net neutrality” and the innovation economy that depends on it. Representatives from Seattle companies such as Moz, Cheezburger, Inc., Strange Loop Games, and Porch, highlighted concerns about how a two-tiered Internet could create higher costs for startups and consumers.

Next month, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to finalize new open Internet rules to regulate how Internet service providers can manage access to broadband networks. Those rules are intended to preserve unfettered access to the Web and prohibit companies from creating two-tiered Internet with fast lanes for those who can afford to pay. But some in Congress have introduced legislation that would limit the FCC’s authority to regulate Internet access.

“Seattle needs to get loud on this,” said Cantwell, who serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC. “If you really want people to invest in one of the biggest tools of the 21st Century for job creation and innovation, you have to give people certainty and predictability that they’re not going to keep ratcheting up the costs of doing business on the Internet.”

“Letting the highest bidder get access while everyone else gets the slow lane would be brutal to innovation,” Cantwell said.

The roundtable was held at Moz, a marketing analytics and software company in Seattle. Cantwell held the roundtable in advance of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday on net neutrality rules. She plans to use input from Monday’s roundtable to represent startups and Washington’s tech economy during the hearing.

Washington state has 191,000 internet economy jobs — and was ranked by CNBC as one of the top 5 states for innovation.  Washington also has the nation’s second-highest rate of broadband users — 88.4 percent use a fixed or mobile broadband connection.

Participants in Monday’s roundtable pointed out that the net neutrality debate has implications for other industries such as retail and health care. They also expressed concern that a two-tiered system could hamper startups by forcing them to have to constantly negotiate with Internet Service Providers over web access, which would detract from focus on developing the next great product.

Participants included:

– Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz

– Ben Huh, CEO and co-founder of Cheezburger, Inc.

– John Krajewski, Creative Director and Executive Producer at Strange Loop Games

– Ryan Calo, Assistant Professor on Cyber Law, University of Washington School of Law

– Michael Schutzler, CEO, Washington Technology Industry Association

– Asha Sharma, Chief Operating Officer, Porch

– Drew Atkins, Policy and Communications Director, Technology Alliance

“It’s an every industry issue. The distinction between what is high-tech and what is retail is disappearing,” said Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz. “Software is revolutionizing every industry. Stakes are higher than high-tech companies that want to get their video products out.”

“We have a multi-trillion dollar evidence base that says the current rules of the game —  which mean open, neutral access to the Internet — work,” said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. A multi-tiered Internet would “force every small company to pony up more money, which means the ultimate loser in all of this is not only the consumer, but also the investors who have made this industry possible because they are going to have to put more money into companies for the exact same level of service they get now.”

“Innovation thrives on trust and reliability,” said Ben Huh of Cheezburger, Inc., which runs a collection of popular humor sites such as LOLCats and FAIL Blog. “What we’re saying here is let’s keep that in the system. If we don’t have net neutrality, it’s going to remove trust. It’s going to remove reliability from everything that we’ve built.”

President Obama has called on FCC to adopt strong net neutrality rules that apply equally to all internet traffic and broadband devices.

Cantwell has been a leader in defending net neutrality and equal access for all Internet users. In December, she spearheaded a letter with 10 other Senators calling on Congressional leaders to preserve four tenets of net neutrality: No blocking content, no paid prioritization, no throttling, and greater transparency. In 2011, she joined with Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to cosponsor legislation that would have codified net neutrality rules.