California’s state Assembly has approved a bill that would not just restore the net neutrality protections enacted under President Obama, but go beyond them, potentially creating the strictest rules in the country.
The bill now heads back to the Senate for a final vote. But that needs to happen soon, or advocates will have to keep waiting: tomorrow is the last day for either chamber to pass legislation until next year.
The bill, passed in a 58-17 vote today, prohibits internet providers from blocking or throttling any legal apps, websites, or other services and bans the paid prioritization of data.
That’s where the Obama-era rules left off. This bill also prohibits zero rating of specific apps, a practice that allows for the use of some services, but not others, without counting toward a subscriber’s data allotment, potentially advantaging the major players that are able to get that kind of special treatment. The legislation carves out an exception for zero rating of entire categories of apps and services, so an internet provider should still be able to offer free data on all music streaming apps, for instance, if they chose to do so.
“The Trump administration destroyed the internet as we know it, plain and simple,” Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), a coauthor, said while presenting the bill. “We have an opportunity in California to lead this nation by voting yes for this bill.”
The bill prompted debate on the floor — far more than most of the other bills the chamber was debating this week. “The worst possible thing we can do is have created 50 different state FCCs,” said Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), who warned that the bill would be litigated up to the Supreme Court. “The place to have this fleshed out is at the federal level.”
Another assemblymember, Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake), told a long and convoluted metaphor about a bridge company in an attempt to explain why net neutrality is bad, concluding that we needed a lot of bridges and not “bridge neutrality.” When you enact a neutrality law, he said, “We’ve seen again and again and again that you don’t get more bridges, you get fewer bridges.”
Several other Republicans came up to criticize the bill. Assemblymember Melissa Menendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said Democrats were just trying to make a political point. “This is embarrassing,” she said. Assemblymember Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) said net neutrality was about “government censorship” and that under net neutrality, “You can’t watch a Netflix movie because your neighbor down the street is downloading eight porn movies.”
Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) criticized Republicans for not supporting California’s right to set its own rules on net neutrality. “The party of state’s rights,” he said, “I guess you get to choose when you wave that banner and when you don’t.” He also brought up Verizon’s throttling of emergency responders’ data speeds, which happened in a county he represented.
Whether any of this actually happens is still very much up in the air, though. For one, there’s the whole Friday deadline, which could delay matters for months. And even if that happens and the bill eventually gets signed, the legislation is certain to kick off a wave of legal challenges over whether California actually has the ability to enforce these rules.
There’s already at least one major legal obstacle in the way: the FCC. The Federal Communications Commission made a rule saying that states couldn’t enact their own net neutrality laws, claiming that it would be too difficult for internet providers to deal with. That’s already being challenged in court, but whether it’s valid or not hasn’t been ruled on yet.
If the bill isn’t approved by tomorrow, it isn’t done for. The Senate could still pick it back up after reconvening in January. But that leaves four more months for the battle over net neutrality to continue.
California isn’t the first state to take action on net neutrality. Two states have passed laws, and others have signed orders applying net neutrality rules on a smaller scale. But California’s proposed rules are the toughest, and they’re sure to generate a fight.