Assemblyman Zwicker pushes to preserve net neutrality in New Jersey

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

On this net neutrality day of action in Washington, Sen. Bob Menendez joined advocates for internet companies and the ACLU in a rally to restore net neutrality. The Senate is just one tie breaking Republican vote away from passing a bill that would vacate the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules. In the meantime, a state assemblyman is taking the legislative lead on both net neutrality and ISP privacy. Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker joins Senior Correspondent Brenda Flanagan.

Flanagan: Welcome, Assemblyman Zwicker.

Zwicker: Thanks for having me, Brenda.

Flanagan: Now you’re a scientist and in the Assembly you chair the Science Innovation and Technology Committee, and you are a crusader for net neutrality. Now, the rules are set to expire in April. If that happens, what is an internet user in New Jersey going to notice?

Zwicker: So, it’s really about fairness. Every single one of us is using the internet basically everyday. I’m sure you’ve used it, I’m using it all the time. We check our email, our phones, we’re on Netflix looking at movies, whatever it might be. So, this idea of net neutrality is that it doesn’t matter what you’re looking at, you’re checking your email or you’re streaming a movie, but you want to have access to that in the same way that you have access to anything. It’s out, we use to call it the information super highway. So, net neutrality would allow internet providers to start to prioritize for you what content you would see at what speed. It would take control away from us.

Flanagan: So, suddenly I’m going to notice that my movie streams at a slower pace?

Zwicker: Exactly. And so then it becomes, it’s either going to be at a slower pace or you’re going to have to pay a little bit more. So, it’s an issue of fairness. It’s saying, ‘look we depend upon the internet for everything.’ Our home, our businesses, our entertainment. It’s only fair you pay money to get onto this information super highway, onto the internet, but after that we the consumers get to decide what we want to see, what we want to watch, the speed, and not the providers. And that’s what this is about. So this is really, in the end, saying that the rules that were getting ready to go in place, that this administration, the Trump administration, has decided to get rid of, we’re going to make sure that in New Jersey that it’s still going to be a free and open internet.

Flanagan: Now, that’s the issue. Gov. Murphy on Feb. 5 signed an executive order saying that all of the businesses that do business with New Jersey government, all the companies have to operate under the rules of net neutrality. And New Jersey is joining a lawsuit with 22 other states, I think it is, to fight for restoring those rules. Now, first can states actually police internet service providers? Are we going to be able to make sure that they’re doing the right thing?

Zwicker: So, what the governor has done, has said, ‘well what can the states actually do?’ So, his executive order looked at public contracts. We have bills in the Legislature that are going to go through my committee that are also going to look at other things that we can do, franchising right of way, things that the state has control of. So while we can’t control what the internet providers necessarily are going to do, we can say, ‘well if you’re going to deal with the state, then you must honor net neutrality.’ And that’s the purpose of what we’re doing legislatively and what the governor is going to do.

Flanagan: Now, as we said earlier the Democrats in Congress are pushing hard to see if there’s a little rule that they are going to try to use to restore net neutrality rules. Does this have any chance of actually happening? I think they’ve got one Republican on board at this point, Sue Collins. They need one more.

Zwicker: I don’t want to say never because anything can happen. You know a couple things, this idea of a free and open internet is not something that should in anyway be political, even though it’s become very politicized. But, quite honestly we’re not going to wait to find out in New Jersey. We’re going to say, ‘I’m going to do everything I can in my power as a legislator to protect the people of New Jersey and make sure that the internet is free and open.’

Flanagan: So, let’s talk about another technology issue and that is internet privacy. Say I spend a few minutes looking at kinds of cat food brands. Now everywhere I go, cat food ads pop up everywhere and not just on the computer, but on the phone, everywhere. So, Google knows everything about you at this point, right? So you introduced a bill last year that would actually take a hold of this and give some privacy back to people. Talk about that because the bill really didn’t go anywhere.

Zwicker: It didn’t go anywhere last session, but we had a hearing on it a few weeks ago and it’s going to move now this year. So, it’s the same idea. It’s about giving you control. If you’re going to look at cat food, you have to be able to decide whether or not you want your internet provider, whoever that might be, to sell your history to the cat food companies. If that’s something you like, if you like having that little box showing the cat food popping up everywhere, your choice. So, my bill simply says that the consumer, each of us, has to give permission to the internet companies. We pay them already to provide our access to the internet. If they’re going to now use our information and for their profit, for our convenience, OK, but it’s our choice. That’s what this bill is doing. And again this is something that the Trump administration decided to get rid of. We’re not going to wait. So in New Jersey, we’re going to do everything we can to protect New Jersey people.

Flanagan: Let’s talk about the fact that you’re a plasma physicist in search of solutions based on really hard evidence, and now as a politician it’s a completely different stage, let’s put it that way. And how do you resolve the difference between the two when you’ve got people saying climate science is fake news?

Zwicker: So, we live in such a strange world when information comes at us in so many different ways and trying to understand what’s real, what’s not real, what’s a fact, what’s an alternative fact. So, every decision I make as a scientist or as a legislator, I say and always try to make sure is based upon evidence. So, in the end if we could have a common set of facts, genuinely, then we can have a debate over any policy issue. So my job, I feel like as a scientist legislator, is to start with the facts, talk to my colleagues in the Legislature about whatever these facts might be, talk to people and say, if we’re going to talk about climate change, if we’re going to talk about offshore drilling and why it’s a terrible idea to drill off the shore of New Jersey, start with the evidence and then we’ll get to the policy at the end, but start with that common set of facts.