By: Camille Reid
Should the internet be open? This question is on the minds of many internet users, startups, and internet service providers (ISPs), like Verizon or AT&T. Those individuals who believe the internet is meant to be open are termed net neutrality supporters. Net neutrality refers to the concept that the internet should be equal to all who access it, and not controlled by ISPs who can slow down, speed up, or otherwise disturb user access.
Consumers and small startups demand net neutrality because of the potential for an ISPs potential to favor its own applications over others it does not own. This and other concerns over the open internet mounted after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” in 2017. The order created a much less regulated Internet by classifying it as an information service. The FCC reasoned that classifying the internet in this way will result in better investment and competition that benefits the consumer. The order rolls back Obama-era net neutrality regulations that many internet users and small companies came to rely on. In response to the FCC’s annihilation of those net neutrality protections, many states responded with lawsuits and legislation. California’s response to the FCC’s order comes in the form of Senate Bill 822 by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). Senator Wiener introduced the bill to ensure that all customers have access to the open internet.
SB 822 attempts to restore the regulations contained in the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order. In keeping with that ideal, this legislation prohibits ISPs from blocking, speeding up or slowing down websites and applications. The bill also requires ISPs to engage in disclosure of its performance and management practices. One part of SB 822 that goes further than the FCC’s 2015 order are the provisions prohibiting zero-rating.
“Zero-rating” is a provider activity where the ISP excludes a majority of websites from a consumer’s usage allowances, while allowing other applications to squeak by without affecting a user’s data caps. For example, T-Mobile allows its user to stream unlimited video and audio from select services like Netflix, and AT&T gives its users the opportunity to access DirectTV for free. T-Mobile and AT&T could then slow down the stream from Netflix or another competing streaming service, thereby giving preferential treatment to its networks. This legislation would disallow ISPs from such obvious favoritism. Most importantly, SB 822 authorizes sanctions and penalties against an ISP for violations, and it also provides the California Public Utilities Commission authority to oversee the quality of internet service that ISPs offer consumers.
Supporters for SB 822 include more than 200 organizations ranging from websites – like Reddit – to business groups – like the California Association of Realtors – to public safety organizations – like CalFire. These organizations argue that SB 822, and protecting net neutrality, is extremely necessary based on the egregious network discrimination done by ISPs. Recently, Verizon slowed internet connections while firefighters battled the Mendocino Complex Fires. Firefighters said that because they were unable to access items like weather forecasts, lives were jeopardized. Supporters of SB 822 focus on its goal to ensure that each Californian is able to connect, invent, and participate online no matter the amount of money they have or where they live.
Opposition to SB 822 hinges on the notion that Senator Wiener’s net neutrality legislation would throttle investment in parts of California and that it is preempted by the FCC’s 2017 order. Those in the camp opposing SB 822 – which includes members of California’s business community, cell phone companies, ISPs, and organizations like the California State Conference of the NAACP and California League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) – argue that ISPs have a specific budget, and any additional regulations brought on by this bill would stop advancement by stifling investment. Opponents also reference preemption as a blockade to SB 822 and rest their rationale on the preemption clause found in the FCC’s 2017 order, which stops states from regulating the internet if it conflicts with the FCC’s objectives.
Despite strenuous opposition and legal issues, SB 822 continues to move forward, having passed both houses of the California Legislature last week. The bill is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature. Senator Wiener’s enthusiasm and belief in the bill is unwavering: “[w]e are moving closer and closer to enacting the strongest net neutrality protections in the nation. Much work remains… but we have momentum.”
To learn more about SB 822, listen to my interview on “In Session,” a podcast from the University of the Pacific Law Review.
Camille Reid is a staff writer for the University of the Pacific Law Review and law student student at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.