California Assembly approves ‘gold standard’ net neutrality bill after rough road


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California is taking the lead when it comes to saving net neutrality. 

The California State Assembly voted to approve a Senate bill that offers the strongest protections for net neutrality. The bill, which passed 58-17, will head back to the Senate for another vote. It’s expected to pass there, and then would go to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. 

California is one of the states looking to enact its own rules governing an open internet, after the Federal Communications Commission, under Chairman Ajit Pai, rolled back the Obama-era net neutrality rules in June. But California’s size and influence means the law could have ripple effects elsewhere. 

States like Washington have pushed through a net neutrality law, while others are considering it. The vote comes a week after the attorneys general of 22 states and the District of Columbia filed their brief to a US Appeals Court to reverse the FCC’s move. Companies like Firefox’s Mozilla and trade groups also filed their arguments. Any state rules on net neutrality will likely face legal challenges from the FCC, which prohibited states from passing their own regulations on the open internet in its repeal. 

Net neutrality, the principle that all internet traffic is treated fairly, has been one of the hottest topics of debate over the last several years. Consumers, tech companies and Democrats have pushed for stricter regulations prohibiting the prioritization of traffic, which resulted in the Obama-era rules put in place by the previous FCC. But the Trump-era FCC has agreed with the internet service providers and Republicans who fear the regulations are too onerous and hurt capital investment. 

Senate Bill 822, which was already approved by the Senate, had a more difficult time in the Assembly. The bill was initially hailed as the ‘gold standard’ of net neutrality regulation because it went beyond even the Obama-era rules, but a California Assembly committee in late June gutted the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener from San Francisco. At the time, Wiener said the amendments made it ‘a fake net neutrality bill.’ That the bill had such a difficult time was a surprise given the Democrat-dominated legislators. 

It wasn’t until there was an uproar against Democratic Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, who serves as the chair of the committee, that the bill was reworked into something more resembling its original form. The committee last week approved the bill after another round of debates.

Going beyond the FCC order, the bill included language banning a practice called zero rating, which lets carriers offer services to consumers without eating up their data, as well as enforced net neutrality principles at so-called interconnection points, where traffic from companies like Netflix flow onto broadband networks to be delivered to consumers.

Santiago stood before the Assembly to endorse the bill.

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‘We have an opportunity in California to lead the nation by voting for the bill,’ Santiago said Thursday.  

Internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T, as well as wireless carriers such as Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint opposed the legislation, arguing that zero rating actually benefits consumers because it gives them a break on their phone bill, and that the interconnection aspect would hurt business. 

The vote on SB 822 came after two days of voting on various proposals. But the debate over net neutrality drew more Assembly members to weigh in with heated arguments than any other bill at that point. A number of Republicans, including Matthew Harper of Huntington Beach and Jay Obernolte of Big Bear Lake, also spoke out against the bill. They criticized the proposed ban on zero rating and questioned whether California should be the one passing its own law. 

Melissa Melendez, a Republican from Lake Elsinore City, called out the arrogance of the Assembly for even weighing in on a national issue.

The fight over this bill has intensified to the point where some senior citizens received robocalls spreading false information about the proposed law. The carriers have denied any participation. 

Beyond California, other states are pursuing their own legislation, while the FCC faces a lawsuit over its move to repeal the Obama-era rules. 

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