California Net Neutrality Bill Inches Forward

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Still sore about last week’s changes to his net neutrality legislation, state Senator Scott Wiener nonetheless championed the bill through the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protections committee Tuesday.

Pledging to push to reinstate language removed earlier, the Democratic senator from San Francisco threatened to use the nuclear option if he doesn’t get what he wants.

“If this bill remains the way it is today, I will pull it,” Wiener said in his closing remarks to the committee. He requested the committee move the bill forward as-is in the hope that the removed language will make it back in later.

According to Wiener, discussions continue with members of the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee, and specifically with Chairman Assembly member Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles.  Although Santiago’s  last-minute changes to Senate Bill 822 angered Wiener,  he hopes the discussions will ultimately produce net neutrality rules that ensure robust regulations and provide consumers with free and open internet without burdening providers and stifling technology development.

“By keeping the bill alive today, we can continue negotiations to restore the protections that were gutted from the bill last week,” Wiener said. “Our broad coalition of supporters have been clear both before and after last week’s vote – California must lead in the fight for the future of the internet by passing a strong and enforceable net neutrality bill.”

Backlash against Santiago was so severe, he released a statement defending his changes to the bill’s language and urging proponents of the measure to temper their emotions.

“I was not appointed by the Speaker of the State Assembly to be a committee chair to simply rubber stamp measures that come over to us from the Senate,” his statement reads. “As the clock ticked, my Committee proposed amendments to SB 822 that consist of the FCC regulation as implemented in 2015 which would make SB 822 the nation’s strongest net neutrality legislation.  The author assured me beforehand that he would not accept them.

“All through this time, the flash messaging on this measure has been easy,” the statement continues.  “It’s sensational, and anger-inducing.  ‘He gutted the bill!’ ‘SB 822 was eviscerated!’ ‘Santiago killed net neutrality!’ But none of those things are true. That level of rhetoric has created a firestorm. I have received threats and my wife has been harassed. My personal family pictures have been stolen from my social media platforms and used to create memes. We expect this type of disrespect, fake news, and insults from Trump – not those who support dignity and progressive values.”

In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed its 2015 rules, setting off a firestorm of state regulation efforts and litigation against the FCC.

Supporters of net neutrality see the federal repeal as the end of net neutrality in the United States, but Steve Carlson, Government Affairs Counsel with the Computing Technology Industry Association, called this belief a fallacy.

“There is, in fact, robust net neutrality,” Carlson said at the committee meeting. “You heard the witnesses here say they don’t have the overly proscriptive rules that we want. To suggest that what happened last week and to say that Senator Wiener’s bill was the 2015 net neutrality rules is disagreed upon.

“We also think that the description of what could happen, what might be, simply hasn’t happened,” he added. “We shouldn’t let [an] alarmist perspective get away from the light regulatory touch that has allowed the internet to become what it has today.”

Bill Devine, Sacramento-based lobbyist for AT&T, told the committee that the language removed went unnecessarily beyond what the FCC established in 2015 by attempting to regulate activity the FCC declined to confront.

“AT&T supports an open internet,” Devine said. “We do not block websites, we do not censor online content and we do not degrade internet traffic. These commitments are published on our website and are enforceable by the California Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, and for the past 20 years, that is exactly how we have run our network.”

Mitch Steiger, policy advocate with California Labor Federation said that despite claims from internet service providers (ISPs) that they will not violate the law, they have already done so.

“In 2005, a group of workers organizing a telecommunications company in Canada actually did block workers access to a website they were using to organize,” Steiger said.

Steiger pointed out that currently, labor organizers use the internet to organize union efforts.

He fears that without net neutrality laws, companies aiming to shut down labor organizing efforts could pay ISPs to throttle or block access to websites the unions need.

Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice went one step further, stating that zero-rating  — in which ISPs provide content free of data use charges when certain conditions, such as accepting advertising, are met — are not only weakening consumer protections, but are also taking advantage of communities of color.

SB 822 banned zero-rating until the June 20 amendments stripped this language from the bill.

“Zero-rating pushes people to use the apps and websites preferred by their internet service provider,” Renderos said in a statement following the hearing. “Coupled with low data caps and the high cost of unlimited data plans, people of color and those in low-income communities — who often rely on mobile devices to access the web — are exposed to a second-class internet experience.”

The initial 2015 FCC order specifically declined to intervene in zero-rating issues beyond a case-by-case analysis.

In 2016, the FCC initiated an inquiry into AT&T’s use of zero-rating to allow its customers data-free streaming of DirectTV content, but did not ask AT&T to change its practices.

The FCC also declined to intervene in 2015 in what is called interconnectivity, which is when one provider sends data to another before it reaches consumers. Net neutrality supporters fear that ISPs may throttle, slow or degrade content at these connection points to avoid net neutrality rules.

The measure will now move on to Assembly Appropriations to gauge its fiscal impact.

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