Net neutrality protest

California restores net neutrality; Trump administration immediately sues

Image credit: REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

Within hours of Governor Jerry Brown signing the SB 822 net neutrality bill into California law on Sunday, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice declared it was filing a lawsuit against the state.

The Federal Justice Department said that it would take California to court on the grounds that the federal government has the exclusive power to regulate net neutrality.

The Californian Senate approved the net neutrality bill, with governor Jerry Brown signing the bill into law on Sunday, after the Assembly (the state legislature’s lower house) voted 59-17 in favour of the bill in August.

The new California law upholds the strictest net neutrality protection in the US, with the government and broadband service providers both concerned that it could serve as a blueprint for other states in favour of net neutrality and keen to overturn the FCC’s controversial and unpopular decision to scrap the original Obama-era regulation.

California is the largest economy in the US (and the fifth largest in the world) and, as such, has the potential for significant influence over the attitude and decisions of other states. Under the new net neutrality law, internet service providers will not be allowed to block or slow specific types of content or applications, nor to charge apps or companies additional fees to offer faster access to customers – the ‘two-tier’ or ‘two-lane’ internet to which campaigners were most opposed regarding the FCC’s repeal.

However, the Department of Justice claims that the California law is illegal and that the state is "attempting to subvert the Federal Government's deregulatory approach" to the internet.

"Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce - the federal government does," Jeff Sessions, attorney general, said in a statement. "Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy."

"In their world, no one is allowed to protect an open internet," said Scott Wiener, state senator, who co-authored the SB 822 bill. “We’ve been down this road before: when Trump and [attorney general Jeff] Sessions sued California and claimed we lacked the power to protect immigrants. California fought Trump and Sessions on their immigration lawsuit - California won - and California will fight this lawsuit as well.

"What California does definitely impacts the national conversation. I do believe that this bill will move us in a positive direction nationally on net neutrality.

California is in fact the third US state to pass its own net neutrality regulations, following Washington and Oregon. However, California’s law goes much further than these two, reverting almost exactly to the comprehensive protection levels of the Obama-era federal net neutrality regulations. Additional US states are now expected to model their own future net neutrality laws on that of the new California law, with work already known to be underway in New York and New Mexico.

The original FCC rules comprised of a two-page summary, followed by over 300 pages with additional protections and clarifications. California has taken great care to craft its law in order to match the details in the hundreds of supporting pages.

Speaking to CNN Money, Barbara van Schewick, a professor at Stanford Law School, said: “Most people don’t understand how hard it is to do a solid net neutrality law. What’s so special about California is that it includes not just two pages of rules, but all of the important protections from the text of the order and as a result closes the loopholes.”

FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement that “not only is California’s internet regulation law illegal, it also hurts consumers. The law prohibits many free-data plans, which allow consumers to stream video, music and the like exempt from any data limits.”

The FCC’s repeal of net neutrality has long been publicly opposed by major internet-based companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, while support for the FCC has inevitably came from those who stand to gain the most financially: telecommunication companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

California attorney general Xavier Becerra said the Trump administration was ignoring “millions of Americans who voiced strong support for net neutrality rules”, while California, which is “home to countless start-ups, tech giants and nearly 40 million consumers will not allow a handful of power brokers to dictate sources for information or the speed at which websites load.

“We remain deeply committed to protecting freedom of expression, innovation and fairness.”

The net neutrality issue is the latest in a series of challenges between the Republican Trump administration and California, the largest Democratic state in the US. Governor Brown has challenged many of Trump’s decisions, including those relating to immigration and environmental deregulation.

In June 2017, within weeks of Trump’s announcement that he was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, designed to curb the effects of climate change, California announced that it would work with China to double down on “climate-positive” opportunities and that it would cooperate with China on clean technology and emissions trading, in addition to other measures in a bid to fill the gap left after withdrawing from the agreement.

Brown also recently signed a bill committing California - the wealthiest and most populous US state - to phase out fossil fuels entirely from its electricity sector by 2045.

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