California lawmaker proposes strictest net neutrality law yet

California state Sen. Scott Wiener's legislation would bar zero-rating, which exceeds protections in regulations the FCC adopted in 2015.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Education Images

A state senator in California has introduced the most comprehensive set of net neutrality protections to date.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, on Tuesday introduced an amended piece of legislation that would codify into California state law Obama-era net neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. But it would also go further than the FCC's original rules by prohibiting wireless companies from offering sponsored content. The Republican-led FCC voted in December to roll back the 2015 rules, arguing such rules hurt investment and innovation in broadband networks.

Wiener's Senate Bill 822 would ban internet service providers in the state from slowing down or blocking access to websites or online services. It would also prevent these companies from offering paid priority to online firms that want to reach customers faster.

"An open internet is essential to maintaining our democracy, growing our economy, protecting consumers, and preserving critical health, safety and energy services," Wiener said in a statement. "ISPs must not be allowed to decide who can access what websites or applications."

The bill is one of two pieces of legislation introduced by California state lawmakers this year that aim to reinstate the federal net neutrality regulations, which consumer and civil rights advocates say are crucial to ensuring a fair and open internet. Broadband and wireless companies, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon oppose both pieces of legislation.

California isn't the only state considering legislation. More than half of US states, including New York, Connecticut and Maryland, are preparing legislation to protect net neutrality. Earlier this month, 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 to adhere to net neutrality principles.

But Wiener's legislation goes further than the other California bill and the bills in different states, as well as the FCC's original net neutrality regulation. It not only makes the original set of FCC rules the law in California, but it also bars ISPs from offering deals that "economically discriminate" against certain sites or services, such as sponsored content or zero-rated plans. These offerings allow a company to pay data charges so that certain apps don't count against a wireless subscriber's data plan.

The FCC's 2015 net neutrality regulation didn't specifically bar zero rating. The agency recognized there could be benefits to consumers, such as lower cost of service. But it also realized that, depending on how the plans were structured, they could also put competitors at a disadvantage.

If passed in the state legislature and signed into law, Wiener's proposal would surely be challenged in court. It's unclear if states actually have the authority to pass their own net neutrality laws. The FCC's rules ban states from trying to supersede federal guidance, and there are other looming legal concerns. ISPs are likely to argue that such laws violate the US Constitution, which prohibits states from regulating commerce that crosses state lines.

Security: Stay up-to-date on the latest in breaches, hacks, fixes and all those cybersecurity issues that keep you up at night.

Blockchain Decoded: CNET looks at the tech powering bitcoin -- and soon, too, a myriad services that will change your life.