Commentary

Net Neutrality Bill Suffers Setback In California

Broadband providers in California appear to have succeeded in their effort to defang what would have been the toughest net neutrality bill in the country.

The proposed bill, introduced in January by state Senator Scott Weiner and passed three weeks ago by California's Senate, would have restored the Obama-era net neutrality rules. The measure prohibited providers from blocking or throttling websites, applications, and services, and from charging companies for faster delivery of their content. It also explicitly outlawed some forms of "zero-rating," which involves exempting some material from consumers' data caps.

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The proposal has drawn support from state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and advocacy groups like the Center for Democracy & Technology, Fight for the Future and Public Knowledge.

Not surprisingly, broadband providers lobbied against Weiner's bill. They argued that internet policy should be set by the federal government, not individual states. They also opposed the bill's substantive provisions -- like the ban on zero-rating -- which obviously interfered with their ambitions to favor content they own. For instance, AT&T currently allows exempts video streamed through the DirecTV app from customers' data caps. Should California ban zero-rating, that exemption would probably be unlawful in the state.

This week, a committee in California's Assembly amended the measure by removing several key provisions, including the ban on zero-rating. The committee also appears to have removed the ban on paid prioritization, and expands providers' ability to throttle content in order to manage traffic on their networks. The latter amendment could allow providers "to throttle entire classes of applications in the name of network management," according The Los Angeles Times.

Weiner sharply criticized the changes, which he said gutted the bill. "These hostile amendments eviscerate the bill and leave us with a net neutrality bill in name only," he stated. "Passing a weak, neutered bill is exactly the wrong direction for our state.”

Weiner, and other advocates, say they will fight to pass his original bill (or at least something resembling it). Lawmakers in the Assembly are scheduled to take up the bill again next week.

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