California Bid for Net Neutrality Wobbles Over Key Hurdle

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California legislators managed to keep efforts at establishing net neutrality at the state level alive – despite intense lobbying and the sheer difficulty of drafting such a complex law – as Senate Bill 822 cleared a key hurdle in the Assembly on Wednesday.

“The core premise of net neutrality is that we get to decide where we go on the internet, as opposed to telecom and cable companies telling us where to go,” the bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Weiner, said in a statement.

“Today’s committee action sending SB 822 to the floor is a big step forward, but we continue to face a huge fight, as the big telecom and cable companies will stop at nothing to kill the bill.”

The last time the bill was before the Assembly Conveyance and Communications Committee, it nearly became a coup de grace for opponents as Democrats argued over wording, intent and purpose for the bill. This led Weiner, a Democrat from San Francisco, to threaten killing it rather than proceeding with what he viewed as a weak and meaningless bill.

In June, Democrats announced amendments to the bill on the last day of the legislative session before summer recess, restoring language gutted by the Conveyance and Communications Committee. The amended legislation passed a difficult vote earlier in August that allows the bill to move forward despite having passed the deadline for policy committee hearings.

The bill is intended to restore net neutrality – Obama-era Federal Communications Commission rules established in 2015 that were discarded under the Trump administration. Proponents of net neutrality view the repeal of internet regulations as an opportunity for internet service providers, or ISPs, to extort and manipulate consumers.

Specifically, SB 822 would regulate ISPs at the point of interconnection, prohibit certain zero-rated options and seek to prevent the companies from blocking websites or speeding up or slowing down websites or applications based on the ability of content providers to pay.

Only one case of ISPs blocking web access has been cited by proponents and it did not occur in the United States.

Mitch Steiger with the California Labor Federation testified the potential exists for corporations to use loopholes or the absence of net neutrality controls to negatively impact ways in which workers can organize.

“Right now, there is an app called Orchid that a lot of Walmart employees use and Walmart spends a lot of time and money trying to prevent it,” Steiger said.

SB 822 would not prevent Walmart from interfering directly, but could bar the company from paying ISPs to block the application.

Opponents of the measure did not agree with SB 822 before amendments reinstated the most controversial aspects and continue to find issue with a number of things in the bill.

“This bill is anticompetitive and anticonsumer, and it will surely going to be challenged under federal pre-emption,” said AT&T spokesman Bill Devine. “The industry did not change without the Obama-era rules. This bill will harm California consumers and weaken state leadership.”

Devine called the bill an unnecessary reaction to the fear of “unrealized harm and alarmist speculation,” a sentiment shared by committee vice-chair Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, who also thinks the bill will exacerbate existing poverty issues in California.

“California has the highest poverty in the nation,” Obernolte said. “One reason for that is the decisions made in this building. I ask you to think about costing low-income consumers when you vote on this bill.”

Studies on the effects of zero-rating, the practice of ISPs providing some content data-free to consumers, indicate consumers nationwide save between $30 to $50 per year. Low-income consumers save hundreds of dollars with free data services provided by ISPs.

The bill was initially tied to Senate Bill 460, by state Sen. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles. De Leon’s bill would bar ISPs who do not follow net neutrality principles from being awarded contracts for state government internet services. Now a stand-alone bill, SB 460 passed through the same committee and will next be heard in the Consumer Privacy and Protections Committee.

 

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