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California legislators advance bill to set strongest net neutrality protections in U.S.

California legislators advance bill to set strongest net neutrality protections in U.S.
Lindsay Chestnut of Baltimore protests in support of net neutrality rules near the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., in 2017. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

California lawmakers advanced an ambitious proposal Thursday to prevent broadband providers from hindering or manipulating access to the internet, bringing the state closer to enacting the strongest net neutrality protections in the country.

The legislation by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) would bring back Obama-era internet rules rolled back by federal regulators this year, the latest volley cast by state leaders already feuding with the Trump administration over immigration and climate protection policies.

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The proposal prevents internet service providers from blocking or slowing down websites and video streams or charging websites fees for faster speeds. But it also goes further than the old regulations and measures taken up by other states, placing new limits on certain data plans and tasking the state’s attorney general with investigating cases in which companies might be evading the rules.

On the Assembly floor, Republicans argued that the state was going too far and would help create a nationwide patchwork of state laws by treading into an area that should be reserved for the federal government.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), a former broadcaster who owned radio stations in California and Idaho, argued that “light-touch regulation” helped the internet flourish. The broad new rules, he contended, would burden companies and prevent innovation.

“The overreach, the going too far here is going to be challenged in court constitutionally, and we are going to find ourselves in very uncertain territory,” he said.

Accusing the bill’s proponents of being unable to explain net neutrality, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) called the Democrats’ resistance to the Trump administration “embarrassing.”

“You are wading into an area that you have no business being in,” she said.

But supporters argued that California needed to take a stand at a time when officials appointed by President Trump had rolled back many consumer protections and broadband providers were willing to profit at the expense of customers and public safety.

“We are stepping up and filling the role that we need to fill because we cannot rely on this federal government to protect us when we need protection,” Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) said.

Senate Bill 822 cleared the Assembly with overwhelming and bipartisan support on a 61-18 vote, overcoming the first major hurdle after months of aggressive lobbying and online advocacy campaigns waged between internet advocates and the telecom industry that have drawn national attention.

The legislation moves to the state Senate, where it was pending Thursday, and lawmakers said it has a good chance to be passed.

“Today’s vote is a huge win for Californians everywhere,” Wiener said in a statement. “The internet is at the heart of 21st century life — our economy, our public safety and health systems, our democracy — and we must protect it.

Net neutrality proponents celebrated the bill’s approval in the Assembly as a victory for internet users and small businesses, calling the protections essential to democracy and fair competition.

“No one wants their cable or phone company to control what they see and do on the internet,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of the tech advocacy group Fight for the Future.

But telecom industry groups, including the California Cable and Telecommunications Assn. and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn., pledged to keep fighting the legislation.

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The Assembly’s “vote today keeps the country strapped into a roller-coaster ride of state net neutrality regulations, but won’t get us any closer to the stable and consistent net neutrality protections consumers deserve in the long term,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and chief executive of USTelecom, a Washington-based lobby group.

California is one of 29 states to consider net neutrality protections since the Federal Communications Commission voted late last year to reverse the Obama-era internet regulations, with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Republicans calling for an end to the utility-like oversight of internet service providers.

The rules, enacted in February 2015 and ended in June, barred broadband and wireless companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon from selling faster delivery of some data, slowing speeds for certain content or favoring selected websites over others.

Wiener’s Senate Bill 822 would, in effect, reestablish the same regulations. It also restricts some zero-rated data plans, or package deals that allow companies such as Verizon or Comcast to exempt some calls, texts or other content from counting against a customer’s data plan.

An additional proposal, Senate Bill 460, by Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) would deny public contracts to companies that fail to follow the new state internet rules. It also is expected to be taken up by the Assembly this week, though a dispute is brewing over amendments that could allow a state agency to waive the net neutrality rules in certain cases.

Debate over the proposals comes as net neutrality has emerged as a rallying issue for Democrats in House races across the country.

Clashes between net neutrality proponents and telecom industry lobbyists heated up again last week when Verizon was reported to have slowed the speed of the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s wireless data transmission, a revelation detailed in an addendum to a federal lawsuit filed by states including California to challenge the repeal of net neutrality rules.

Verizon has said the incident was due to a customer service error and has nothing to do with net neutrality.

But on the Assembly floor Thursday, Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) said passing the bill was also about making sure that public safety officers have open access to the internet.

“So they don’t find themselves in the situation that our county firefighters found themselves in during the biggest wildfire in the state’s history,” he said.

Over the weekend, Wiener accused broadband companies of using robocalls to mislead the elderly about the impact of his bill, and he posted a voicemail of one such alleged call on Twitter.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who presented the bill Thursday, was the target of a different campaign in June, one waged by net neutrality proponents who condemned his Assembly committee’s earlier attempt to throw out contents of Wiener’s bill.

He since helped restore the bill and signed on as a co-author to both net neutrality proposals.

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“We all know why we are here,” Santiago said. “The Trump administration destroyed the internet as we know it.”

5:10 p.m. This article was updated with additional comments from supporters and opponents of the bill, and with a new vote tally.

This article was originally published at 3:25 p.m.

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