Calif. Governor Signs Net Neutrality Law, Prompting DoJ Lawsuit

California Gov. Jerry Brown

California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown on Sunday signed S.B. 822 , which restores in the state Obama-era Federal net neutrality laws that were gutted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year.

Almost immediately, the Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a lawsuit against the state of California to overturn the new law because, according to a DoJ statement, the legislation “unlawfully imposes burdens on the Federal government’s deregulatory approach to the Internet.”

Under the new state law, internet service providers (ISPs) are prohibited from blocking or throttling lawful internet traffic.  The law also nixes the idea of pay-to-play, meaning that ISPs cannot charge websites or online services fees to prioritize their traffic to consumers. The legislation also imposes limits on data cap exemptions, and in case ISPs try to get around the new regulations, the legislation bans ISPs from slowing down traffic at network interconnection points.

“Preserving a free and open internet is a matter of free speech; essential to the underpinning of our democracy,” the bill’s co-author, Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said earlier this month when the legislation passed the state Senate. “When Washington, D.C. abandons its obligation to protect American consumers from predatory special interests, California steps up to get the job done.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that the new legislation amounts to regulatory overreach.

“Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce–the Federal government does,” Sessions said in a statement Sunday. “Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai said the state law would end up hurting consumers.

“The law prohibits many free-data plans, which allow consumers to stream video, music, and the like exempt from any data limits,” Pai said. “They have proven enormously popular in the marketplace, especially among lower-income Americans. But notwithstanding the consumer benefits, this state law bans them.”

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has built a reputation on suing the Federal government and the Trump administration, issued a statement indicating he was ready to fight the legislation and defend California’s new law.

“While the Trump administration continues to ignore the millions of Americans who voiced strong support for net neutrality rules, California–home to countless start-ups, tech giants, and nearly 40 million consumers–will not allow a handful of power brokers to dictate sources for information or the speed at which websites load,” Becerra said. “We remain deeply committed to protecting freedom of expression, innovation, and fairness.”

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, another co-author of the bill, expressed his support for the legislation and his belief that the state will prevail in any lawsuit with the Federal government.

“We’ve been down this road before: when Trump and Sessions sued California and claimed we lacked the power to protect immigrants. California fought Trump and Sessions on their immigration lawsuit–California won–and California will fight this lawsuit as well,” Weiner said. “I have complete confidence that Attorney General Xavier Becerra will do a great job defending this law.”

Advocates for net neutrality praised the legislation after Brown signed the bill.

“Despite their army of lobbyists and millions spent lining the pockets of legislators, these companies continue to lose ground in the face of overwhelming cross-partisan opposition to their greedy attacks on our Internet freedom,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights group. “When all is said and done, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T are going to wish they’d never picked a fight with Internet over net neutrality. Other states should follow California’s lead, and Congress should pass the joint resolution to reverse the FCC’s resoundingly unpopular repeal.”

Jonathan Spalter, CEO of industry trade group USTelecom, who has been vocal in his opposition to the bill, released another statement after the legislation was signed into law. Spalter says he supports enforceable net neutrality protections but argues this piece of legislation won’t achieve its goals.

“This bill is neither the way to get there, nor will it help advance the promise and potential of California’s innovation DNA,” Spalter said. “Rather than 50 states stepping in with their own conflicting open internet solutions, we need Congress to step up with a national framework for the whole internet ecosystem and resolve this issue once and for all.”

California is one of more than 25 states to consider net neutrality protections since the FCC voted in December 2017 to roll back the Obama-era regulations.  The agency’s action took effect in June.

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