Net Neutrality Bill Moves Forward In California

California lawmakers this week moved a step closer toward passing net neutrality rules.

The state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill (SB 822) that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or throttling traffic, and from charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

The measure, introduced by state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), also would restrict Internet service providers' ability to exempt some material from consumers' data caps, and would limit some forms of paid "interconnection" agreements.

Those agreements can involve video providers paying broadband carriers to interconnect directly with their network; the most famous examples probably occurred in 2014, when Netflix resolved a problem with choppy streams by entering into deals with the major carriers.

The bill passed out of committee with only minor changes, despite a last-minute effort by some lawmakers to significantly water down the measure by removing restrictions on interconnection fees and data-cap exemptions. The bill will now move to the State Judiciary Committee.

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Shortly before Tuesday's vote, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra endorsed the bill. "Measures are needed that will guarantee California's robust net neutrality protections and close loopholes that, if left unchecked, could be detrimental to California's consumers," an official on Becerra's office wrote Tuesday in a letter to Weiner.

The proposed bill had already picked up support from numerous others, including former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and advocacy groups like the Center for Democracy & Technology, Fight for the Future and Public Knowledge.

California is among dozens of states considering passing their own open internet rules. Last December, the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality regulations, which were similar to the ones under consideration in California.

Proponents of net neutrality rules say they're necessary to prevent broadband providers from engaging in censorship, and from harming competitors. But current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said he considers the Obama-era rules "heavy-handed," and argued that they depressed investment.

So far, seven states have taken steps to restore net neutrality rules since the FCC's repeal last December. Governors of five states -- New York, New Jersey, Montana, Hawaii and Vermont -- recently signed executive orders requiring state agencies to enter into contracts only with broadband providers that promise to follow net neutrality principles. Oregon also recently enacted a law to that effect.

Washington state passed a more comprehensive net neutrality law that prohibits broadband providers operating in the state from blocking or throttling traffic and from charging companies higher fees for prioritized delivery.

The broadband industry recently vowed to challenge the state efforts in court. The providers argue that broadband service shouldn't be subject to state-by-state laws.

When the FCC voted to repeal the net neutrality rules, it also voted to block states from passing their own versions of the regulations. It's not yet clear whether that prohibition on state laws is enforceable.

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