April 17, 2018
A bill to create California’s version of expiring national net neutrality regulation passed its first major test Tuesday by getting through the state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee.
The committee voted 8-3 to send the bill authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill, however, still has a long road ahead before gaining approval by both houses of the Legislature.
“Californians want to protect net neutrality, and this is not a partisan issue,” Wiener said during the hearing.
Still, the bill is highly political, and the Democrat-dominated committee voted along party lines. Under the Trump administration, the Federal Communications Commission voted in December to rescind rules that forced Internet service providers to adhere to the principles of net neutrality. The rules were meant to ensure companies that provide Internet service to treat all Web traffic fairly and evenly. The net neutrality repeal is scheduled to go into effect April 23.
Wiener called the FCC’s action “outrageous” and said it reversed “more than 15 years of careful bipartisan work.”
Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, the energy committee chairman, went a step further, opening his comments about the bill by saying “totalitarian dictatorships and monarchies are not very popular” and “at the very core of what we do not support in America.”
“In this case in particular, the president overstepped his bounds,” Heuso said. The state needed to take action “in absence of our federal government that refuses to do its job.”
Under the Obama administration, the FCC adopted net neutrality rules in 2015 to prevent the biggest Internet providers from favoring certain websites over others by blocking or slowing down service for some customers or charging not to do so.
But under Trump, the Republican-dominated commission voted in December to return to a “light touch” set of regulations that Chairman Ajit Pai said had allowed the Internet industry to prosper.
The FCC’s December decision was supported by the largest telecommunications companies, including AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, which strongly oppose Wiener’s bill.
“We do not block websites, we do not censor Internet content, we do not degrade Internet access,” Bill Devine, an AT&T vice president, told the state Senate committee. “This bill is built upon speculation that somebody, somewhere, sometime in the future might violate net neutrality rules.”
Wiener’s bill goes far beyond the FCC’s 2015 order and contains confusing language that could stifle investment in Internet infrastructure, Devine said.
Wiener hopes to use California’s sheer market size to force the biggest Internet providers to adhere to net neutrality policies throughout the country. Proponents and opponents nationwide had their eyes fixed on this bill because it was the most comprehensive bill introduced in any state so far.
“It’s the only state level bill that fully restores all of the 2015 net neutrality protections,” Weiner said.
Carolyn McIntyre, California Cable & Telecommunications Association president, said the bill “would shift increased costs to consumers” and subject Internet companies to “a patchwork of potentially conflicting requirements both within and outside of California.”
Faith Bautista, president of the nonprofit home counseling agency National Asian American Coalition, said the real problem was solving the digital divide and providing cheap online access for seniors and immigrants.
With the bill, “We’re trying to solve a problem that’s not a problem,” Bautista said. “Who will be the winners? The lawyers. We all want an open Internet, but we are all opposed to SB822.”
Proponents of the bill feared the committee would gut it of consumer protection measures, but Wiener said in a statement that amendments to the bill approved in the committee “maintain all the key provisions of the bill intact.”
The committee removed a proposal to make the state Public Utilities Commission in charge of net neutrality rules. It also clarified how the state attorney general’s office would enforce issues such as whether an Internet service company was improperly connecting companies to the Internet or not offering equal access to services competing for consumers.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra submitted a letter supporting the bill on Tuesday.