California Wins in Net Neutrality Fight

When we left off last, BILLSHARK was telling you about the previous administration’s apparent success in halting 2018 a California law designed to ensure net neutrality within its borders. (Net neutrality is the concept that Internet service providers [ISPs] should not be allowed to slow or block data based on content, or favor websites or video streams from firms that pay for preferential treatment.)

California’s law goes farther than any other state has so far in attempting to ensure net neutrality within its borders. In addition to prohibiting ISPs from slowing or blocking websites or charging extra for priority service, the California law also prevented them from charging customers for exemptions to caps on their data use (known as zero-rating).

The U.S. Justice Department under President Trump filed suit to block the law when it was passed. The Trump administration did not favor net neutrality and in 2017 reversed Obama-era rules that implemented net neutrality nationwide. At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) barred states from enacting consumer protections in the area of net neutrality.

California victorious

Late last month, a federal judge in California’s Eastern District handed supporters of net neutrality a final victory. Lawmakers expect the case to impact net neutrality laws nationwide.

The broadband industry’s four main lobbying groups filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the law from taking effect. But judge John Mendez announced his ruling during a hearing. The docket noted his denial of the motion.

Industry groups had argued that a net neutrality law wasn’t necessary because they haven’t been blocking or throttling Internet traffic.

“I have heard that argument and I don’t find it persuasive,” he said, in remarks reported in The Hollywood Reporter. He noted the giant telecoms would naturally not engage in such practices while they awaited the outcome of the case.

“[That argument is] going to fall on deaf ears,” he said. “Everyone has been on their best behavior since 2018, waiting for whatever happened in the DC Circuit [court case of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality]. I don’t place weight on the argument that everything is fine and we don’t need to worry.”

The court’s ruling effectively denied the lobbying groups’ request for a preliminary injunction to stop California from enforcing the 2018 law. The lawsuit against the law can continue. But Mendez will allow California to enforce net neutrality within its borders in the meantime.

Proponents celebrate

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra celebrated the ruling. “The ability of an Internet service provider to block, slow down, or speed up content based on a user’s ability to pay for service degrades the very idea of a competitive marketplace and the open transfer of information at the core of our increasingly digital and connected world,” he said in a statement.

Following Mendez’s decision, acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel likewise weighed in.

When the FCC, over my objection, rolled back its #netneutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws. Tonight a court in California decided that the state law can go into effect. This is big news for #openinternet policy.

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) February 24, 2021

California state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) originally introduced the state’s net neutrality legislation. He, too, praised Mendez’s ruling in a statement. He called it a “huge victory for open access to the Internet, our democracy, and our economy.

“The Internet is at the heart of modern life,” he added. “We all should be able to decide for ourselves where we go on the Internet and how we access information. We cannot allow big corporations to make those decisions for us.”

Fight not over

Unfortunately, don’t expect the giant telecoms—Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, among others—to accept defeat so easily.

The trade groups that filed the suit said in a joint statement they “will review the court’s opinion before deciding on next steps.”

“A state-by-state approach to Internet regulation will confuse consumers and deter network investment, just as the importance of broadband for all has never been more apparent.”

And, of course, the original lawsuit against the California law continues. The Trump administration had supported the lawsuit. In February the Justice Department under the Biden administration formally withdrew its support.

Observers believe the suit ultimately has little chance of success.

Barbara van Schewick, a law professor at Stanford University who wrote one of the briefs supporting the law, released a statement saying in part, “The judge found that the law is on solid legal foundation and that the [Internet service providers] trying to overturn it are not likely to prevail.”

Referring to the FCC, she added, “The judge found, as I’ve long argued, that an agency that says it has no power to regulate, it has no power to tell others they can’t regulate.”

We’ll keep you updated as the situation warrants. Meanwhile, BILLSHARK can help you fight the broadband giants in your own small way. Let our professional negotiators deal with them, and help save money on your monthly bills. Remember, this service is free. You pay only if we can save you money.

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