California's fight for strong net neutrality isn't over yet

It was considered the gold standard for net neutrality before getting watered down this week. Legislators are still trying to save it.

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
4 min read
State capitol building, Sacramento, California

State capitol building, Sacramento, California. 

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California may still get its super strong net neutrality protections after all. Democrats in the state legislature are heading back to the negotiating table after key provisions of the bill were cut during a committee hearing this week.

The bill's author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, on Friday said he and fellow Democrat Assemblyman Miguel Santiago will begin negotiating next week to fix the bill to ensure the protections that were weeded out in the committee process are added back into the legislation. Santiago is chairman of the Assembly committee working on the bill.

"We've agreed to make a good faith effort to make amendments to the bill in order to pass strong net neutrality," he said in an interview. "But as I've made clear in the past, there are some protections that must be in the bill. Without them, this would not be real net neutrality."

Santiago confirmed he is working with Wiener on a compromise, but fell short of promising he'd rollback his amendments.

"Net neutrality lives," he said in a statement. "It really does."

The news comes as the California legislation, which was heralded as one of the nation's most aggressive efforts to revive Obama-era net neutrality regulations reversed by the Trump administration, were watered down during a tense legislative hearing Wednesday. Following the vote, Wiener said the hostile amendments added at the last minute by Santiago and passed before the hearing even began "eviscerate the bill and leave us with a net neutrality bill in name only."

The move to weaken the bill was seen as a major blow to Democrats in Congress and in state houses across the country, who were looking to California to set a high standard, as they push to reinstate strong net neutrality protections to replace the rules the Republican-led FCC voted to eliminate. It's also angered supporters of the movement, who have accused Santiago of being a shill for big broadband companies, like AT&T, which has contributed thousands of dollars to his campaigns.

Santiago denies these claims.

In a statement issued Friday, he tried to explain his position, explaining he wanted to make sure that the legislation could withstand legal challenges from the broadband industry. But when it became clear that Wiener would not accept changes, Santiago said he "didn't want (Wiener) to drop the bill and walk away from it."

"The clock kept ticking," he said. "But we ran out of time. The author and I simply could not come to a resolution with the same goal of getting a strong progressive net neutrality bill."

The backlash against Santiago has gotten personal. And he accused the media and activists of fanning the flames with, what he called, "sensational and anger-inducing" messaging. He said he's been threatened and his wife harassed. And he said his personal family pictures had been stolen from his social media pages and used to create memes.

"Really?" he said. "Using pictures of my kids? This is a new low. Progressives don't behave that way. We expect this type of disrespect, fake news, and insults from Trump -- not those who support dignity and progressive values."

Net neutrality, California-style

Wiener's net neutrality bill got national attention because its protections go beyond the FCC's 2015 net neutrality "bright line" rules by including provisions like limits on discriminatory zero-rating, a business practice that allows broadband providers like AT&T to exempt their own services from their monthly wireless data caps, while services from competitors are counted against those limits. The result is a market controlled by internet service providers like AT&T, who can shut out the competition by creating an economic disadvantage for those competitors through its wireless service plans.

Wiener's bill also ensured broadband providers adhered to net neutrality principles at so-called interconnection points where traffic from companies like Netflix flowed onto broadband networks to be delivered consumers.

Santiago felt the bill went too far and could have hurt consumers who would benefit in the short term from perks like zero-rated plans. He also worried the strict rules would hurt investment from broadband and wireless companies, which would be prohibited from experimenting with new business models in a changing market.

Even though Santiago's critics have accused him of caving to pressure from industry lobbyists, the industry still opposes the amended bill.

Steve Carlson, speaking for the CTIA wireless trade group at the hearing, said he opposed the bill both in its original and amended form, arguing both bills go beyond the 2015 order. He called the fears over the lack of net neutrality laws "alarmist speculation."

What's next?

There are two more committee hearings the bill needs to go through before it heads to the full California Assembly for a vote. The next hearing on the bill is Tuesday. Wiener said it's unlikely that the negotiations will be completed that soon, but he's hopeful a deal can be worked out in time for the appropriations committee hearing next month.  If not, amendments can still be added to the bill up to 72 hours before the end of the legislative session on August 31.

And if a deal still can't be hammered out, Wiener said net neutrality will have to wait until next year. But he said Californians need those protections now, especially since the FCC's rules have officially come off the books and AT&T has completed its megamerger with Time Warner.

"We are in the danger zone," he said. "If I am forced to pull the bill and try again next year I will. But we don't have time. We need to pass a strong net neutrality bill this year."

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