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Politics

California net neutrality bill survives first vote

California's net neutrality bill is moving ahead and giving hope to the national movement to preserve the FCC's 2015 rules, which are about to die.

Exploring California's State Capitol

The ornate dome of California's legislature.

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A California bill meant to replace the FCC's repealed Obama-era net neutrality rules is on its way to becoming law.

Senate Bill 822, written by state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, made it through its first vote before the state Senate's Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee on Tuesday. The committee voted 8-3 along party lines to support the bill with only minor amendments. The next vote will be before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Net neutrality supporters worried ahead of the vote that the state's Democrat-led legislature would concede too much to the broadband industry. Broadband providers as a whole say they support the spirit of net neutrality but believe Wiener's legislation goes too far. On Monday, the Senate's EUC committee issued a report that suggested changes to the bill, but many net neutrality supporters said such changes would eliminate key protections and open loopholes that would allow internet service providers to skirt net neutrality protections.

Amendments were made to the bill in committee, but the bill's most important aspects -- a prohibition against slowing down or blocking access to content and a ban on zero-rating -- were left in tact. Zero-rating is a controversial practice that lets wireless customers stream some content without it counting against their monthly data caps.

"The amendments crafted today with the committee maintain all key provisions of the bill intact," Wiener said Tuesday in a statement. "The bill fully protects net neutrality in California."

The committee removed a proposal to put the state Public Utilities Commission in charge of net neutrality rules. And it clarified how the state attorney general's office will enforce net neutrality.

California is one of more than two dozen states considering legislation to reinstate net neutrality rules, which were repealed by the Trump administration's FCC in December. The repeal becomes official on April 23. Other states, including New York, Connecticut and Maryland, are also preparing legislation to protect net neutrality. Earlier this year, Washington became the first state to sign such legislation into law. Governors in several states, including New Jersey and Montana, have signed executive orders requiring ISPs that do business with the state adhere to net neutrality principles.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the US Senate are trying to reinstate the FCC's rules through the Congressional Review Act.

The California bill goes further than any other state or national rules. First, it transforms the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules into California law. But it also bars internet service providers from offering deals, such as sponsored content or zero-rating, that "economically discriminate" against certain sites or services. Such offerings allow a company to pay data charges so that certain content doesn't count against a wireless subscriber's data plan. In addition, the bill allows the state to oversee commercial interconnection deals to ensure broadband companies can't use their market power to charge hefty amounts from companies like Netflix.

The progression of the bill through the state legislature is being watched closely because advocates and the broadband industry alike believe the fate of the legislation could affect the national movement.

The bill has won support from heavy hitters like former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee, whose FCC adopted the 2015 rules. He's called the effort in California the "most sweeping" bill of its kind in the country. If it passes in its current form, Wheeler said he believes it could send a strong signal to other states and to Capitol Hill.

Large internet service providers, such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, oppose the California law. While they say they supports the basic idea of net neutrality, they argue that bans on things like zero-rating and paid-priority, which could allow companies to pay broadband companies to get their services delivered faster than competitors, limit their ability to try new business models. The big broadband providers say without the ability to experiment with new business models, they'll have to charge consumers more for their services in the future.

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