Net neutrality is back in California and the US government isn’t happy

1 Oct 2018214 Views

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Net neutrality supporters in Philadelphia earlier this year. Image: Michael Candelori/Shutterstock

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Expect a major showdown between the US government and the state of California.

The governor of California, Jerry Brown, has signed net neutrality legislation into law, effectively reversing the work of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai.

Pai has responded by calling the bill “illegal”. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has also filed a lawsuit to stop the state’s new law, which guarantees full and equal access to the internet and which echoes the original net neutrality rules enforced by the FCC during the Obama era.

‘While the Trump administration does everything in its power to undermine our democracy, we in California will continue to do what’s right for our residents’
– SCOTT WIENER

Supporters of net neutrality believe that the FCC rules will lead to a two-tier internet of fast and slow lanes; fast for those who can pay for it, slow for those who can’t.

The telecoms industries want net neutrality killed in favour of an internet where they call the shots and internet players pay them fees to provide services at the speeds consumers expect. As a result, costs of services such as Netflix and other streaming services being provided by Amazon Prime, YouTube, Spotify and Apple could go up.

The new California state law prohibits internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or throttling internet traffic and from requiring fees from online service platforms to prioritise their traffic to consumers.

Brown has been an opponent of many of US president Donald Trump’s actions, including on immigration and environmental deregulation.

California state senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat senator for San Francisco and author of the net neutrality bill, said: “While the Trump administration does everything in its power to undermine our democracy, we in California will continue to do what’s right for our residents.”

Kill bill

However, the US government is acting fast to defeat the Californian bill in what will be a real test of individual states’ abilities to impose their own laws and rules. Last night (30 September), the DoJ filed its lawsuit against California.

“Under the constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce – the federal government does,” said attorney general Jeff Sessions in a statement. “Once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy. The Justice Department should not have to spend valuable time and resources to file this suit today, but we have a duty to defend the prerogatives of the federal government and protect our constitutional order. We will do so with vigour. We are confident that we will prevail in this case because the facts are on our side.”

Pai praised the DoJ’s reprisal. “Not only is California’s internet regulation law illegal, it also hurts consumers,” he said. “The law prohibits many free-data plans, which allow consumers to stream video, music and the like, exempt from any data limits. They have proven enormously popular in the marketplace, especially among lower-income Americans. But, notwithstanding the consumer benefits, this state law bans them.

“The internet is free and open today, and it will continue to be under the light-touch protections of the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Department of Justice to ensure the internet remains ‘unfettered by federal or state regulation’, as federal law requires, and the domain of engineers, entrepreneurs and technologists, not lawyers and bureaucrats.”

The coming months will tell if California can hold its own and if other US states will follow in restoring net neutrality and staving off the spectre of a two-tier internet.

Net neutrality supporters in Philadelphia earlier this year. Image: Michael Candelori/Shutterstock

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com