California state legislature at night

California lawmakers pass tougher net neutrality bill

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The State Assembly of California has approved a bill laying out the toughest net neutrality laws in the US. The bill, which was passed with a large majority, will now pass to the Senate.

The Assembly (the state legislature's lower house) voted 59-17 in favour of SB 822. This legislation goes beyond the Obama White House’s 2014 federal net neutrality regulations, which were introduced in 2014 to ensure a level playing field and promote competition among internet companies. They forbid internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or limiting legal web sites, services and apps and the paid prioritisation of content in data plans. The regulations were controversially dismantled in a 3-2 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote in December 2017, led by FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

However, the Californian bill also bans “zero rating” of apps: zero rating gives special treatment to certain apps, which can be used without counting towards the user’s data limit. This benefits apps belonging to larger companies which can cover the cost of their user’s data. While ISPs will still be allowed to offer customers free data on whole categories of apps (e.g. social media or music streaming), they will not be allowed to benefit specific apps within these categories.

“The Trump administration destroyed the internet as we know it, plain and simple,” said Democratic member and bill co-author Miguel Santiago, as the legislation was presented in the chamber. “We have an opportunity in California to lead this nation by voting yes for this bill. This is imperative in the fight for a free and open internet that does not discriminate content or users based on how much money they have or who can pay them.”

The bill has faced difficulties, with fierce lobbying from the telecommunications industry and opposition within the legislature. Opponents of the bill argued that net neutrality regulations amounted to “censorship”, would stifle investment and that regulation was a federal responsibility. However, the bill received a significant boost in support following reports that ISP Verizon had deliberately throttled a California fire department’s internet access, potentially hindering its efforts to fight wildfires. Verizon later apologised and stated that the slowdown was a mistake.

The bill must pass through the California State Senate for a final vote and receive the approval of Democratic State Governor Jerry Brown before it can become law. However, it must be approved by the end of the week in order for the legislation to be implemented or else be shelved until January 2019 when the Senate is due to reassemble.

The legislation, if it passes, is likely to face legal challenges. The FCC has stated that state governments are forbidden from introducing their own net neutrality regulations, arguing that a patchwork of regulations across the US would be challenging for ISPs. However, two states (Oregon in April and Washington State in March) have already passed state net neutrality laws and 22 state attorney generals are suing the FCC over its repeal of the net neutrality regulations.

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