SACRAMENTO – Two weeks after promising to pull his net neutrality bill after a California state Assembly committee stripped key protections, a state senator on Thursday announced a breakthrough in negotiations on the stalled landmark legislation.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, joined Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, to announce a revived net neutrality plan will come before the Legislature in August.
“This will be the most comprehensive, strongest net neutrality protection in the United States, bar none,” Wiener said. “We are restoring what we lost when Donald Trump’s FCC obliterated the internet.”
Wiener will officially amend his SB-822 bill Aug. 6 when the Legislature returns from summer recess, to avoid violating rules that bar amending bills when not in session.
The final breakthrough came in restructuring and rewording areas of Wiener’s bill around protections not part of the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission order, repealed by President Donald Trump in 2017. On June 20, the Assembly Committee on Communication and Conveyance – which Santiago chairs – found some areas of the bill weak and unlikely to pass judicial muster.
Santiago explained that built-in constraints within the political process prevented his committee from reaching an agreement with Wiener before the committee hearing, leading to lost tempers within the statehouse and threats against legislators from constituents across the state.
“Plain and simple, we ran out of time, and sometimes the legislative process is messy,” Santiago said. “To keep the bill moving, we put in amendments. But right after, we said we have to sit down and get this right. This bill is stronger, it keeps core protections and it is written in such a way that it will withstand legal challenge.”
The reinstated key areas of protection affect the ability of internet service providers to manipulate data at the point of interconnectivity, where services from a provider meet and incorporate with another and transmit third-party data.
The point is regulated through agreements brokered by the owners of the equipment that have been in place for 20 years in some cases – agreements that may be invalidated by net neutrality. The FCC declined to regulate interconnectivity in 2015.
Proponents of net neutrality fear that ISPs may throttle or restrict access to certain websites or content. While there are few examples this has happened and regulations preventing such anticompetitive behavior already affect ISPs like AT&T, state Sen. Kevin De Leon hammered home the point that access to the internet is essential to some, and could be critically impacted by what ISPs may do in the future.
“This fight is about so much more than our ability to stream the best shows on Netflix or Hulu or whatever websites you want to enjoy for whatever reason,” De Leon said. “For some folks, it’s quite frankly about life and death.
“We are fighting to preserve net neutrality because we believe a free and open internet is vital to our democracy and our way of life. Net neutrality is fundamentally an issue of free speech.”
The rewritten legislation will again incorporate prohibitions on blocking websites, speeding up or slowing down websites or whole classes of applications like video, charging websites for access to an ISP’s subscribers or making subscribers pay for “fast lanes.”
Wiener’s bill was previously changed to incorporate another bill written by De Leon, ensuring that if SB 822 did not pass, no net neutrality protections would move forward in 2018. De Leon’s bill will be amended in the future to require ISPs who do business with the state to meet net neutrality regulations.
“To be clear, we are not out of the woods,” Wiener cautioned.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, who worked with Wiener, Santiago and De Leon to rewrite SB 822, added: “We still have very powerful special interests to defeat here in the Assembly. I have confidence that California internet users will win this fight.”
Service providers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast remain opposed to the legislation. An AT&T representative did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Meanwhile, a coalition of opponents including the California Chamber of Commerce believe creating a state net neutrality regulation is misguided and detrimental to Californians and the economy.
“SB 822 will not promote or protect an open internet. Instead, it opens the door to a patchwork of unworkable state regulations that will stymie innovation, and potentially undermine the backbone of California’s Internet economy,” the coalition said in an email.
“Despite virtually no showing of harms or violations of any rules, and regardless of strong federal and state regulatory and enforcement safeguards currently in place, SB 822 goes beyond the previous 2015 Net Neutrality Rules, including the creation of untenable procurement requirements and enforcement by multiple forums,” the email said.
The measure will be taken up by the state Assembly on Aug. 6 to confirm the new amendments. While the bill was initially passed in the state Senate, the multitude of changes requires another reading.