Last month, a California Assembly committee voted to remove key protections from a state-level net neutrality bill. Critics said the changes opened loopholes that would allow broadband providers to throttle some applications, or charge websites or services for “fast lane” access on their networks. Now those key protections are coming back.
At a press conference Thursday, California state Senator Scott Wiener, who introduced the original bill, and Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, who proposed the changes last month, said they had agreed on a new version of the bill that restores provisions that would make the California bill the most robust net neutrality protections in the nation.
The latest version of the bill restores provisions that prevent broadband providers from exempting some services from customers’ data caps, and ban providers from charging websites “access fees” to reach customers on a network or blocking or throttling content as it enters their networks from other networks, according to a fact sheet released by Wiener, Santiago, and state Senator Kevin de León.
During the press conference, Wiener explained that he and Santiago have been working on a new version of the bill since shortly after Santiago’s changes were approved last month.
Wiener’s original bill, which passed the California Senate in May, was in some ways more robust than the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality protections repealed last month; Wiener’s bill, for example, explicitly banned broadband providers from exempting services they own from customers’ data limits. So if the bill were to become law, AT&T would no longer be allowed to exempt its DirecTV Now video streaming service from its mobile users’ data allotments.
Last month, the Communications and Conveyance committee, which Santiago chairs, amended Wiener’s bill to remove the provisions that covered data caps, as well as other sections that explicitly banned broadband providers from charging websites “access fees” to reach customers on a network or blocking or throttling content as it entered their networks from other broadband networks.
Santiago originally framed his changes as bringing the bill in line with the Obama-era net neutrality protections. The FCC’s net neutrality order wasn’t as explicit as Wiener’s bill, but it did give the agency authority to regulate data caps and the interconnections between broadband networks; removing those provisions from the California bill made it weaker than the Obama-era protections.
Asked why he reversed course, Santiago says the changes he made in committee last month were part of an ongoing process to get the net neutrality protections right. “We ran out of time, we kept the issue moving, and we agreed to get it right,” he says.
But he also faced pushback from advocacy groups. One group, Fight for the Future, announced a crowdfunding campaign to pay for a billboard targeting the assemblymember in his Los Angeles district.
“We appreciate Assemblymember Miguel Santiago’s change of heart,” Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer said in a statement. “This should be a lesson to other lawmakers: don’t mess with net neutrality unless you’re prepared to feel your constituents’ wrath. Today’s news shows the power of the internet to overcome business as usual and win real victories for the public.”
The new version of the bill still needs to be approved by both houses of the California Legislature, and signed by Governor Jerry Brown. From there, it could face legal challenges from the FCC, which prohibited states from adopting their own net neutrality protections when it repealed the national net neutrality rules. During the press conference, Santiago said the California bill would stand up to legal scrutiny. Legal experts have told WIRED they are unsure whether the FCC has authority to preempt state law on the issue.
The telecommunications industry group USTelecom has promised to challenge state level net neutrality rules, arguing that they would lead to a fragmented legal environment.
“Ideally we would have one national standard, but that hasn’t happened,” Wiener said Thursday.