California Lawmakers Revamp Proposed Net Neutrality Law

This March, California Democrat Scott Wiener introduced a bill touted as offering the strongest net neutrality protections in the country.

Two weeks ago, however, a legislative committee watered down the proposed law, SB 822, prompting Wiener to lament the bill's evisceration. But Thursday, in yet another reversal, lawmakers announced that they had revamped the bill, and that it once again includes sweeping open Internet protections.

"This will be the most comprehensive and the strongest net neutrality protection in the United States," Wiener said Thursday. "We are restoring what we lost when Donald Trump's FCC obliterated net neutrality."

The proposed bill, aimed at restoring the Obama-era net neutrality rules, would prohibit providers from blocking or throttling websites, applications, and services, and from charging companies for faster delivery of their content.

It also would prohibit "anticompetitive" and "abusive" forms of zero-rating, which involves exempting some material from consumers' data caps. Wiener elaborated on Thursday that the proposed bill could prohibit carriers from zero-rating their own content. That ban could affect services like AT&T's "data free TV" -- an offering that exempts videos streamed through DirecTV's app from customers' data caps.

Early last year, shortly before Trump's inauguration, outgoing chairman Tom Wheeler said AT&T's zero-rating scheme violated net neutrality principles. Current FCC chairman Ajit Pai endorsed the companies' zero-ratings offerings and officially closed the agency's investigation into the matter.

The precise wording of the revised proposal won't be available until August, when California lawmakers go back into session.

Net neutrality proponents cheered Thursday's news about the California proposal. "The protections that have been restored to SB 822, based on today’s reports, are essential for preventing Internet providers like AT&T and Comcast from abusing their monopoly power to control what we do online by turning the internet into a playground they control," the group Fight for the Future stated. "The protections against discriminatory zero rating schemes are especially essential for low-income Californians, who are disproportionately affected by low data caps."

Last December, the FCC voted to repeal a set of nationwide net neutrality rules that were passed in 2015. Those regulations, like California's proposed measure, prohibited broadband carriers from blocking or throttling online traffic and from charging companies higher fees for prioritized delivery.

Net neutrality advocates say rules are necessary to ensure that carriers don't discriminate against competitors and small companies that can't afford extra fees for fast-lane service. But Pai, who pressed for the repeal, says the rules were "heavy-handed" and depressed investment.

Since the repeal, governors of Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Montana, Hawaii and Vermont have signed orders requiring state agencies to contract only with providers that follow net neutrality principles. The state of Oregon recently passed a law that similarly prohibits state agencies from contracting with broadband providers that violate net neutrality principles. 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.

It's not yet clear whether individual states can enact net neutrality rules. When the FCC voted to repeal the Obama-era regulations, the agency also attempted to block states from crafting their own rules. But some legal experts say that block may not hold up in court.

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