California lawmakers give thumbs-up to 'gold standard' net neutrality bill

The bill offers the strongest protections on net neutrality yet and sends a message to the rest of the country.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
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California State Sen. Scott Wiener (right) talks to Sen. Ed Hernandez.

Scott Wiener

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

The California State Senate voted Friday to approve a bill that offers the nation's strongest protections for net neutrality. The bill, which passed the State Assembly on Thursday, now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk. He's expected to sign it into law.

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 its law could have ripple effects elsewhere.

Watch this: California net neutrality law beset by political infighting

States like Washington have pushed through net neutrality laws, while others are considering doing so. The California Senate vote comes about 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 in its repeal prohibited states from passing their own regulations about an open internet.

Net neutrality, the principle that all internet traffic should be 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.

California's Senate Bill 822 had a more difficult time in the Assembly than it did in the Senate. The bill was initially hailed as the "gold standard" of net neutrality regulation because it went beyond even the Obama-era rules, but in late June a California Assembly committee 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." It was a surprise the bill had such a tough time, given that many of the legislators are Democrats.

Net neutrality supporters take protest to Verizon stores

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

Going beyond the FCC order, the bill includes language banning a practice called zero rating, which lets a carrier offer its customers services that don't pump up their data usage. The bill also enforces net neutrality principles at so-called interconnection points, where traffic from companies like Netflix flows onto broadband networks to be delivered to consumers.

Santiago stood before the Assembly to endorse the bill.

"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 Assembly 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 intensified to the point where some senior citizens received robocalls spreading false information about the proposed law. The carriers have denied any participation.

The FCC faces a lawsuit over its move to repeal the Obama-era rules.

First published Aug. 30, 3:14 p.m. PT
Update, Sept. 1 at 10:47 a.m.: This story was originally published under a different headline after the Assembly vote. It's been slightly rewritten to reflect the Senate's Aug. 31 vote.

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