Net Neutrality Inches Closer to Reality in California

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California moved a step closer to enacting the strongest consumer internet protections in the nation Thursday, after the state Assembly passed a bill to reinstate and expand Obama-era net neutrality rules.

Senate Bill 822 would revive net neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 and repealed by the Trump administration this year. The measure now returns to the state Senate for a vote.

If passed, the bill will bar internet service providers from accepting payment to slow or throttle user data and block access to web content, and will ban zero-rated data plans. The measure met with criticism from service providers and legislators concerned the regulation may increase the cost of service to consumers and stifle development of wireless broadband in rural California.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, wrote the bill to thwart the Trump administration’s efforts to deregulate internet service providers.

“Today’s vote is a huge win for Californians everywhere,” Wiener said in a statement. “The internet is at the heart of 21st century life – our economy, our public safety and health systems, our democracy – and we must protect it. 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.”

Proponents of SB 822 point to marketing efforts by ISPs to push zero-rated content – which users can access without being counted against a data plan – as racially discriminatory and abusive. Amendments made to the bill will allow the government to ban zero-rated plans that harm consumers, among several regulatory powers the state seeks to gain.

Proponents believe the only way to maintain a free and open internet is to give regulatory control over to the government.

“Whether applying for a job, accessing health care or running a small business, the internet is an indispensable element of modern life,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, in a statement. “Today’s vote on SB 822 brings California ever closer to reinstating net neutrality. All Californians deserve a free and open internet in which no one is throttled or blocked from the digital connections that are critical to their lives and livelihoods.”

Wiener nearly killed the bill earlier this year after amendments made in committee stripped it of what he said were essential consumer protections. Those elements were reinstated during the legislative recess earlier this summer after Wiener and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, the chairman of the committee that removed the language, met and worked together to resolve philosophical differences.

“Today, we advanced the strongest net neutrality legislation in the nation,” said Santiago in a statement. “SB 822 is a crucial step towards ensuring that we have a free and open internet that doesn’t discriminate or price users or content differently. This is a big win in our people-powered movement against the Trump administration’s destruction of the internet.”

On the Assembly floor, several legislators cited the recent revelation that Verizon throttled data used by firefighters working to contain the Mendocino Complex Fire last month as evidence of the need for SB 822.

“We can’t rely on this government to protect us and we need protection,” said Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier. “Our firefighters, every single time they are battling wildfires, these companies keep saying they are not throttling, then they do it. Talk about the dumbest thing they could have done. This is an issue that hit the firefighters that are fighting to protect our constituent’s lives.”

He added: “This is an issue the ISPs created on their own by spending years fighting net neutrality.”

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Nicolaus, noted earlier this week a select committee hearing investigated the issue and determined the problematic throttling is unrelated to net neutrality.

“This wasn’t the company purposefully slowing data, firefighters ran out of data on the plan they paid for,” Gallagher stated. “This policy would do nothing about that situation. Period. What we are really here about is to placate the left base over a boogieman issue.”

Opponents of the bill see the effort as little more than an attempt to “resist.” Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said on the Assembly floor that the legislation is an overreach of power by the state and likely runs afoul of interstate commerce regulations.

“President Trump didn’t ruin the internet. You are wading into an area you have no business in. This is a federal issue. Your resistance is comical at this point,” Melendez said.

Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, agreed.

“Democrats have a long history of trying to regulate what we hear, what we see and what we believe. There is no fake news in this, net neutrality is the next version of the fairness doctrine,” Allen said, recalling the FCC policy requiring broadcasters to air unpopular viewpoints as often as popular ones. The policy was eliminated in the 1980s by Republicans who saw it as a restriction of First Amendment rights.

Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, said the issue is a federal matter and “unworkable within state lines.”

“Furthermore, SB 822 threatens to impose huge costs on service providers that will stifle private infrastructure investment,” Mathis said. “Broadband deployment in rural California already is extremely expensive.  These costs result in large areas completely left without internet access whatsoever.  However, the compliance costs of SB 822 will further drain the capital available for rural broadband deployment in these rural and underserved communities.”

Proponents of the bill have not cited any instances of ISPs throttling or blocking content in violation of net neutrality rules, either before 2015 or since. Conservatives on the Assembly floor noted net neutrality rules will not affect content filtering, a hot-button topic for Republicans who claim social media giants Twitter and Facebook screen, block and prevent content from reaching viewers.

The state Senate OK’d amendments on Friday afternoon, and the bill is now headed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for signature or veto.

“We did it,” Wiener said in a statement after the Senate passed his bill. “We passed the strongest net neutrality standards in the nation. This was by no means an easy feat. I am grateful to my colleagues for taking the time to understand this nuanced issue, and am thankful to our diverse coalition who helped to organize grassroots support throughout our state. We hope that other states can look to this legislation as a model for net neutrality standards.”

A separate bill, SB 460 by state Sen. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, will bar California from entering into business contracts with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality rules. The bill was once dependent on passage of SB 822, but recent amendments have removed that requirement.

Both De Leon and Santiago applauded the bill’s passage as a win for a “free and open internet” and took potshots at the Trump administration’s “destruction of the internet.”

 

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