California’s Stringent Net Neutrality Bill Is Back — And Close to Becoming Law

California's State Capitol, Sacramento
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California's State Capitol, Sacramento
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California’s State Capitol in Sacramento

Despite intense efforts by major ISPs to kill SB 822, California’s stringent net neutrality bill is making a major comeback.

SB 822, California’s ultra-tough net neutrality bill, was almost defeated by powerful ISPs like Verizon and AT&T.  Now, it’s back — and one step closer to becoming law.

Just this afternoon (August 22nd), the bill was approved by the California Senate’s Communications and Conveyance Committee.  That paves the way for a full vote on the Assembly floor, which is likely to happen next week.

Back in May, the tough bill was passed by California’s Senate, though it was subsequently gutted by the same Communications and Conveyance Committed that passed it this afternoon.  Critics put the blame on Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, who fast-tracked a weakened bill in an attempt to bury it.  Santiago soon faced a massive backlash from pro-neutrality protestors, and ultimately reversed his position.

The result was a re-strengthened SB 822 bill and a 9-3 vote in favor of it.

Exactly why Santiago switched course is unclear, though neutrality advocates pointed to serious political pressure.  The Assemblyman’s office was quickly barraged with a flood of phone calls, while protestors on the street employed some unusual tactics.  At one point, Santiago’s face was projected on the side of an AT&T corporate office in Oakland, CA, with ‘Sellout Santiago’ written in huge letters.

We’ve also heard that anti-Santiago billboards were being crowdfunded, though we’re not sure if any were erected.  Santiago, who counts Verizon as a top donor, was labeled corrupt and may have feared losing his seat.

Evan Greer, an ardent net neutrality defender and Deputy Director of Fight for the Future, promised to keep the pressure on politicians like Santiago.  “Let me say this in no uncertain terms: any California legislator who stands in the way of net neutrality will regret it for the rest of their political career,” Greer emailed.

“The whole Internet is watching. Honestly it’s ridiculous and a bit embarrassing for the Democratic Party that net neutrality activists have had to fight so hard to get this bill passed in a state with a supermajority of lawmakers from a party that professes to love the free and open Internet.”

Either way, this bill is now back — and very close to becoming an extremely tough law.

SB 822, if passed, would create the toughest net neutrality provision in the U.S.  The bill, crafted by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is predictably opposed by AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, all of whom have lobbied heavily against the bill.  If the bill passes, major ISPs have promised to litigate against it, though Wiener says the bill would withstand legal challenges.

“The internet needs to be free and open where we as individuals get to decide where we go and the next Amazon or Google that is three people in someone’s garage right now get to access customers without having to pay a fee that they can’t afford to pay,” Wiener told fellow lawmakers.

In a nutshell, SB 822 would strictly ban the blocking and throttling of internet traffic, and place serious restrictions on ‘zero rating’.

Zero rating, which is more common on mobile plans, refers to the allocation of unlimited data for certain services.  In many cases, a provider will ‘zero rate’ their own service to make it more attractive to consumers, which creates a serious competitive imbalance.

Alongside SB 822 is SB 460, a companion bill crafted by Sen. Kevin de Léon, D-Los Angeles.  SB 460 would require businesses that sign contracts with the state to adhere to net neutrality rules.  That bill also passed the Committee, also by a 9-3 vote.

Both votes are solid moves forward, though the clock it ticking.  In order to pass into law, the bill must receive approval by the full Assembly and broader Senate before the legislative session ends on August 31st.  Ultimately, California governor Jerry Brown will have to sign the bill into law.