James Martin/CNET

Net neutrality's ultimate champion keeps on fighting

Between restoring net neutrality, regulating the tech industry and tackling the state's housing crisis, California state Sen. Scott Wiener never stops moving.

California's handsome neoclassical state capitol in Sacramento is a busy place on this balmy June day, with 120 legislators and their aides hurrying back from lunch for afternoon votes. But even with all that activity, Scott Wiener is easy to spot in the crowd.

The Democratic state senator from San Francisco, who stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall, looks like the kind of person who never sits still for long, a quality his legislative record readily reflects. Though he's only in his first term, 49-year-old Wiener is one of the most prolific members of the chamber, tackling hot-button issues as if reelection next year is the furthest thing from his mind. Whether it's restoring net neutrality in California, addressing the state's intractable housing shortage or contemplating regulation of the state's powerful technology industry or its workers, Wiener isn't afraid to set his razor-sharp gaze on complicated problems.

Wiener's legislation has encountered some setbacks. Net neutrality has yet to return to California even though a federal appeals court has ruled the state can set its own regulations, and his signature housing bill to override local residential zoning laws is delayed until 2020. Still, he's pressing ahead with his vision for the Golden State.

"It's still somewhat true today that elected officials don't want to necessarily touch the real root causes of a problem like housing crisis because it's so controversial," Wiener says. "I'm in politics, so I accept that kind of heat. But it's so important to begin solving this problem."

Wiener's office overlooks the leafy park that surrounds the capitol. The spacious room is decorated to reflect not just his personality, but also the Senate district he represents. Photos of San Francisco, certificates from community organizations and a wood cutout map of the Bay Area line the walls. Scattered elsewhere are a snow globe with the San Francisco skyline, a toy BART train, small US and Pride flags and, perhaps in reference to his height, a figurine of a giraffe. It's an inviting and personable space that doesn't feel overdone.

Dressed in a dark suit that neatly fits his angular frame, accentuated by a bright orange tie, he settles quickly into his chair. He begins by asking whether he's positioned correctly for our camera. But rather than appearing nervous, it's clear he just wants to hit his mark so he can get back to the Senate floor. After spending an hour with him, it's clear Scott Wiener likes to be prepared for everything.

California state senator Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener speaks on the floor of the Senate chamber.

James Martin/CNET

Starting in San Francisco

Wiener was born in Philadelphia and raised in the southern New Jersey town of Turnersville. There, he got an early lesson in being an outsider. As as he put it in a 2013 interview with San Francisco Magazine, "I grew up Jewish in a very, very non-Jewish place where there was plenty of anti-Semitism." He earned a bachelor's degree from Duke University, graduating in 1992, and a law degree from Harvard University in 1996. The next year brought a move to San Francisco, where he worked as a private practice attorney before taking a job as a deputy city attorney in 2002. 

Wiener's first step to elected office came eight years later when he won an open seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after the incumbent termed out. The general election pitted two Democratic gay men against each other in a historically gay supervisorial district once represented by gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk. Almost anywhere else in the country, the two candidates would be viewed as far left, but in San Francisco's peculiar political world some saw (and continue to see) Wiener as a moderate, or even a conservative, too wrapped up in the arms of big business. (Wiener's 2010 opponent, Rafael Mandelman, now occupies his former seat as a supervisor.)


Wiener's former San Francisco Board of Supervisors district includes the city's Castro neighborhood.

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Taking his seat on the board, Wiener concentrated on workaday issues like improving transit and increasing funding for parks, easing restrictions on in-law rental units and authoring the bill that made San Francisco the first city to mandate up to six weeks of parental leave. He ventured into more controversial territory by authoring a 2% soda tax, rejected by voters in 2014, and voting in 2011 for a 1.5% payroll tax break designed to entice Twitter and other technology companies to stay in San Francisco and revitalize the city's Mid-Market neighborhood. Though Twitter did settle in the area, city officials have panned the legislation in recent months for failing to fix Mid-Market's problems.

Wiener stands by his vote, disputing the charge that the tax break caused San Francisco's current tech boom, which has been blamed for raising the city's rents and home prices to stratospheric levels. "This temporary tax zone has played a crucial role in drawing many different businesses (not just tech) and arts institutions to the mid-Market area," he wrote in an emailed response after we spoke in person. "The area still has challenges, but it's much improved from 10 years ago."


A protestor bares all to criticize Wiener's successful push to ban public nudity in San Francisco.

Getty images

The next year, he successfully pushed to ban public nudity, earning himself national attention. It was an only-in-San-Francisco moment as critics, deriding the ban as an attack on free speech and civil liberties, protested in the buff during the vote inside the ornate supervisors' chamber at City Hall (one demonstrator called the ban "fascist"). The irony of a guy with the surname of Wiener attacking public nudity wasn't lost on anyone, perhaps even Wiener himself. On the wall of his office is a framed copy of Butt Guardian, a paper insert published by the Bay Area Guardian newspaper in 2011 to mock the ban. (Since the law technically only required people to cover their genitals, you were supposed to put the insert between your bare bum and a chair when sitting in public.)

Wiener said naked people roaming the Castro wasn't his top issue, but he acted after residents complained the nudists were taking advantage of the neighborhood's tolerant spirit. "As an elected official, you sometimes need to deal with issues you really don't care about or want to deal with," he says. "I did what I needed to do."


One of the decorations on his office wall is a Butt Guardian published by a San Francisco newspaper.

Kent German/CNET

On to Sacramento 

Wiener was reelected to the board in 2014, but two years later he entered the race for an open seat in California's Senate. The 11th Senate district, covering all of San Francisco County, as well as Daly City in neighboring San Mateo County, is overwhelmingly Democratic, again leaving liberal Wiener open only to a serious challenge from the left. Though he narrowly came in second in the June primary to fellow supervisor Jane Kim, he went on to win the race by 8,000 votes in the general election. By law, political candidates in San Francisco must choose a Chinese name for the ballot. Wiener's was "Wei Shangao," which means "bold, majestic, charitable and tall."

Just as when he arrived on the board, Wiener didn't hide on a backbench in Sacramento. During his first legislative session, in 2017-18, he authored 41 bills, of which 22 became law (only two senators out of the 40 in the chamber authored more). And so far this year, he's introduced 24 more, including a bill to protect the right of homeowners to generate their own electricity through solar energy. 


Wiener at work in his state capitol office.

James Martin/CNET

Much of his successful legislation so far has centered on safe, sometimes wonky issues like lowering drug costs and setting regulations for water recycling. Many of his bills have won bipartisan support. But he's also attracted ire from across the aisle by pushing LGBTQ issues to the forefront with laws allowing a nonbinary gender option on state ID cards and outlawing discrimination for LGBTQ seniors in nursing homes. 

It's a diverse slate of policies, and in person Wiener really does seem to have opinions about everything -- just once during our conversation (when asked whether the US needs a nationalized 5G system) did he decline to share his thoughts. Though he speaks deliberately and articulately, Wiener doesn't come across as scripted or rehearsed by a pollster. He's careful without being cautious, managed without being manufactured. And I get the impression that he's perpetually calm but not exactly warm. The only reference to his personal life comes when he says he and his boyfriend had recently seen The Last Black Man in San Francisco.


The rotunda of the California state capitol.

Kent German/CNET

For tech, all options on the table

You can't really talk about Wiener without discussing the tech industry . With Uber, Twitter and Airbnb all headquartered in San Francisco, Wiener's Senate district is home to some of the industry's biggest and most powerful companies, not to mention thousands of residents who work at them and commute to Silicon Valley. It's surprising then to hear him admit he's not a tech expert. But when I ask about whether the industry needs more regulation, he has an answer ready. Though technology companies have transformed modern life, not always in good ways, reform is needed around issues like privacy and antitrust. 

Wiener says he doesn't want to smother a crucial state industry, but he said all options for some regulation should be considered. "I think breaking them up should be on the table as an option," he says. "We've seen that even the vast majority of advertising dollars are now going to Google and Facebook. Good for them, it makes them successful. But that creates real challenges for the internet as a whole and the flow of information as a whole." 

He voted for AB-5, a bill passed by the legislature this week that would reclassify ride-hail drivers, like those for Uber and Lyft, as employees rather than independent contractors. That new status would give the drivers more protections, such as overtime, minimum wage and the right to unionize. Another area he says may be worth investigating is whether government has a role in managing what social media platforms let their users post and whether they should police and remove some content. For example, he calls Facebook's initial reluctance to remove a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who represents San Francisco in Congress) a terrible mistake.


After Wiener and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a payroll tax break for the city's Mid-Market neighborhood, Twitter moved its headquarters to the area. 

James Martin/CNET

"It's hard for the government to try to micromanage social media outlets in terms of what they keep up and what they take down," he says. "You can enact a law with a certain intent and all of sudden a year later it has a consequence no one intended. So we have to be careful and thoughtful with these regulations."

More than once, Wiener cites the European Union as an example of how online regulation might work, specifically in regard to removing hate or defamatory speech, or the "right to be forgotten" -- under the GDPR law passed by the European Parliament last year, EU citizens can appeal to internet search engines to have certain information that's out of date, incorrect or embarrassing about them removed from search results. In 2018, Wiener voted for the California Consumer Privacy Act. Starting in 2020, the law lets regular internet users ask for the data a company has collected on them and find out whom the data has been sold to.

"There is now feedback about some of the unintended consequences of some of the European model," he says. "But I think what Europe has shown is that you can actually address some of these issues that the US has failed to address."


Wiener (right) speaks with Republican state Sen. Ed Hernandez, who supported the bill, before the net neutrality vote.

Scott Wiener

A standard for net neutrality

Wiener authored a 2018 bill that aimed to restore net neutrality protections in California, weeks after those protections were repealed at the federal level by the Federal Communications Commission. Net neutrality rests on the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally by wireless and broadband service providers and that you shouldn't have to pay extra for faster service or access to online services like Netflix.


Assemblyman Jay Obernolte says the net neutrality legislation is unconstitutional.

Jay Obernolte

Wiener's bill prohibits internet providers from blocking or slowing access to lawful content, charging for access to content that's otherwise free or prioritizing specific content through a faster connection. But it goes a step farther than the federal rules adopted in 2015 by outlawing a practice called zero rating -- when a provider exempts its own streaming services, but not competing products, from its wireless customers' data caps.

He calls the FCC's decision shameful and says California's size -- 39 million people, which makes it the most populous state in the country -- gives it tremendous influence, making the bill necessary. "The internet is at the heart of modern life," he says. "We need to make sure that we can all decide where we go on the internet as opposed to having a major corporation tell us where we're allowed to go, or manipulate us only to go to favored websites." 

Though the bill eventually won bipartisan support, and all Democrats in both the Senate and the Assembly voted in favor -- Democratic Assemblyman Miguel Santiago briefly tried to push weaker legislation that Wiener called "fake net neutrality" -- most of his Republican colleagues voted no. 

Republican Assemblyman Jay Obernolte says that though net neutrality sounds like a good idea, Wiener's bill could increase service costs by $30 to $50 per year. "Because zero-rating is no longer permitted," he said, "consumers will be required to pay for services they previously received for free. This law is not only unconstitutional but also enacts the harshest regulations on internet service of any state in the country."

But net neutrality advocates are quick to praise the legislation. Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, says Wiener's ability to reinstate his stronger proposals for the final vote was commendable. "Anything that pushes the feds to do a national bill is a good thing," she says. "I think a bill like this has a lot of great purposes, like protecting the people of California, setting a national standard for net neutrality and putting pressure on Congress to pass a national legislation." 

California has temporarily agreed not to enforce its legislation after a 2018 lawsuit by the Department of Justice. But that suit was put on hold pending the outcome of an August 2018 brief to a US Appeals Court filed by 22 states and the District of Columbia to reverse the FCC's move. 


Net neutrality advocate Gigi Sohn is hopeful California's net neutrality legislation will encourage other states to pass similar laws.

Gigi Sohn

On Oct. 1, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals issued a mixed decision in that larger case, upholding the FCC's net neutrality repeal but also striking down a key provision that blocked states from passing their own net neutrality protections.

In a statement, Wiener praised the decision. "If the FCC won't protect consumers and ensure net neutrality, then states have an obligation to step in, and that's what we did in California ... I'm thrilled that the court rejected the FCC's effort to preempt state net neutrality laws."

Despite the Court of Appeals decision, California's legislation is still on hold pending possible appeals and the outcome of the DOJ suit against the state. But Wiener is determined to implement it. 

"The giant telecom and cable companies are very sophisticated," Wiener says. "They're definitely smart enough to know that now it's not time for them to engage in abusive behavior. The last thing we need is to lose and then move past this fight, and then have really terrible things happen." 

5G radiation sign

Wiener says he's sympathetic to the concerns about the deployment of 5G cell towers but that cities shouldn't be able to stop them outright.

Kent German/CNET

Flexibility for 5G

Bridging California's digital divide between urban and rural areas is another area Wiener talks readily about. The rollout of high-speed 5G networks in the state is in its earliest stages, but he's clear that expanding 5G  to rural areas will bring economic benefits and help emergency services better respond to natural disasters.

"In our rural areas [wireless service] can be poor or even nonexistent. That's unfair," he says. "In the town of Paradise that was burned down last year, there was very inadequate cell coverage there. We need to do a lot more."

But getting 5G up and running is turning out to be a problem even in urban regions. Some communities in California are resisting the installation of cell towers in residential neighborhoods, citing property values, neighborhood clutter and the safety of wireless signals. Wiener acknowledges their concerns but insists that the need for a strong wireless network means a balance has to be struck.

"No one is dying to have a cell tower or that kind of infrastructure near their home, and I get that," he says. "Cities need flexibility about where exactly [a cell tower] is going to go and how it looks and whether it's going to be covered up. But I don't agree that neighborhoods should be able to completely keep cell infrastructure out."


Wiener's signature housing legislation is delayed for now, but he has no plans to let it falter.

James Martin/CNET

Hoping for housing

It's housing, though, that now occupies Wiener's focus. He chairs the Senate Housing Committee and is the author and public face of SB-50, a controversial bill that he says will tackle one of California's thorniest issues: the lack of affordable housing. 

How big the shortage is depends on whom you talk to. An oft-cited 2016 report from the McKinsey Global Institute says the state will need to build 3.5 million homes by 2025, while Wiener's bill points to an "unmet housing backlog of nearly 2 million units."

Rick Hall, the president of Livable California, a group opposed to the bill, says the real housing deficit is more like 1.2 million units.  But regardless, the Bay Area and Wiener's Senate district are poster children for high housing costs. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median price for a single-family home during the second quarter was  $1.05 million in San Francisco and $1.33 million in San Jose, the two most expensive markets in the country.


Rick Hall of Livable California says the state faces not a housing crisis, but an affordability crisis.

Kent German/CNET

Wiener calls it a terrible situation. "It's causing overcrowding and it's forcing people to commute hours or even leave the state entirely."

In the state's most populous counties, SB-50 would override local zoning laws that favor single-family homes by forcing cities to allow taller, multiunit buildings near transit corridors and "job-rich" areas (other counties would have looser requirements). Of course, for a bill that approaches 14,000 words, there are a ton of specifics and exceptions -- Curbed SF has a helpful chart explaining many of them. But the overall purpose of the bill is clear: Local zoning laws are part of the housing problem, Wiener says.

"This is changing how California does zoning," he says. "It's been a purely local endeavor for 170 years, and that's no longer sustainable. It doesn't work. So we need stronger state standards."

SB-50 is the second try at a housing bill Wiener introduced last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to take a position on the bill despite repeatedly calling for more housing construction. But the legislation also has attracted a diverse swath of opponents, like Wiener's former colleagues on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles City Council, the League of California Cities and many suburban mayors. They say the bill will lead to out-of-control growth and argue that zoning decisions should be left at the local level. Other critics, like tenant advocacy groups, predict SB-50 will displace renters and low-income residents -- they accuse Wiener of being too cozy with luxury real estate interests. (According to Vote Smart, Wiener collected $187,800 from contributors in the real estate, building materials and construction industries for his 2016 campaign, out of a total of $2.8 million in donations.)


San Francisco Planning Commission member Dennis Richards (center) with his husband (right) and Rafael Mandelman, a San Francisco supervisor and Wiener's 2010 opponent.

Dennis Richards

Dennis Richards, a member of the San Francisco Planning Commission, says California needs more affordable housing, not more housing in general, and that SB-50 isn't the solution. "We have no idea what this is going to do," he says. "This is the genie out of the bottle. This is the bacteria that morphs and kills everybody."

Wiener always knew the bill would be controversial. "There are people who simply don't want any new development in their community, and people who are no-growth, as well as some people on the left who are concerned about displacement and gentrification," he says. "We have worked very hard to build strong tenant protection and strong anti-displacement protections into the bill."

But after the bill passed through two Senate committees in April, the Appropriations Committee decided in May to table it until next year. In a statement, Sen. Anthony Portantino, the Democrat who chairs the committee, said legitimate concerns about SB-50 justified its delay. "My colleague from San Francisco is one of the smartest and most earnest legislators in the capitol. He cares deeply about the housing crisis, and I expect him to continue to pursue his goals."

Though Wiener was disappointed by the decision, he says he has the support to see it signed into law. "SB-50 is not a silver bullet," he says. "But if we can pass it in a strong form, over time it will lead to a lot more housing in California."


Wiener (in white shirt) rides down Market Street during San Francisco's 2019 Pride Parade.

Getty images

A decade on

Wiener is a copious tweeter, using the platform to promote SB-50 and affordable housing and gay rights and to make frequent criticisms of President Donald Trump. He says he writes his own tweets. "That's the only thing that Donald Trump and I have in common," he says with a rare laugh. "Once in a while I'll do a word in all caps and I'll think, 'That's too Trump.'"

Up for reelection in 2020, Wiener says he wants to return to the state senate for another four-year term (he's supporting California Sen. Kamala Harris for US president). By 2028, though, he'll need to look for a new political home, as term limits in California cap him at three. As for predicting how San Francisco will look by that time, he's more circumspect. 

"A lot of the challenges that we're facing today are very extreme now," he says. "Displacement, gentrification, evictions, housing affordability ... those are problems that we've been facing in San Francisco for 50 years or more. But the good thing is that San Francisco is a very resilient place."

As we wrap up, Wiener exits the room as purposefully as he arrived. He's due on the Senate floor in five minutes, giving CNET's video crew just enough time to film him striding down the hallway to the elevators. It's clear there's no time for chitchat. But a few days later, I see him towering above supporters while riding atop a flatbed truck at San Francisco's Pride Parade. It's a noisy, vibrant scene, but even with hundreds of waving rainbow flags, the orange signs emblazoned with his name and the cheering crowds lining the street, you can't miss him.

Originally published Sep. 12.
Update, Oct. 1: Adds information about the DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision.