California Introduces New, Tougher Net Neutrality Rules; Uses Ajit Pai's Abdication Of Authority Against The FCC

from the reap-what-you-sow dept

Earlier this year, California introduced new net neutrality legislation as part of similar efforts across more than half the states in the nation. At the time, we noted how the EFF wasn't a particular fan of California's proposal, arguing that the wording of the effort left the law open to challenges by the FCC, which has (at AT&T and Comcast behest) promised to block states that actually try to protect consumers in the wake of its unpopular net neutrality repeal. But a new California proposal has no such Achilles heel, goes notably further than the first effort, and now has the EFF's full support.

California state senator Scott Wiener this week introduced SB 822, a much tougher, more comprehensive proposal that would prohibit not only the blocking and throttling of websites and services by ISPs, but would ban "paid prioritization" deals that would allow deep-pocketed content companies (like, say, ESPN) from buying an unfair advantage against smaller competitors and startups. The bill also takes aim at the kind of interconnection shenanigans and double dipping that resulted in Netflix performance issues back in 2014, while leaving the door open to reasonable network management practices.

In some ways the proposal goes a bit further than the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules, in that it more concretely addresses the problem of "zero rating" ( when ISPs let a partner's content or their own bypass usage caps while still penalizing others). Zero rating in general is allowed, but only if entire classes of content are whitelisted. Individual efforts to whitelist only specific partners (as we saw with T-Moble's controversial "Binge On" efforts), would be forbidden, as would pay to play approaches where content companies are allowed to buy a zero rating advantage over a competitor:

"Wiener’s bill digs into more arcane matters that the Obama-era FCC’s now-abolished 2015 policy included. It tackles the “zero-rating” programs, such as T-Mobile’s Binge On, which exempt some sites, apps, and services from monthly data caps. Obama’s FCC allowed Binge On, since T-Mobile continued welcoming new video services. California’s law seems to require blanket access for all similar apps without a wait for the ISP to add them. “It can be allowed if it is about a certain class [of content], like you could have when you’re doing games,” says Wiener about zero-rating. “If they say we’re going to apply it to a category, not any one product, and all comers, then it’s not automatically illegal."

The bill is also more resilient to any efforts by the Trump and Ajit Pai FCC to hinder state efforts to protect consumers. Whereas many states are just regurgitating the FCC's 2015 rules in their own proposals, that alone isn't enough to protect them from potential FCC preemption, argues Barbara van Schewick, Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, and the Director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. She also argues that the FCC shot its state preemption efforts in the foot by rolling back the classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act:

"The bill is on firm legal ground.

While the FCC’s 2017 Order explicitly bans states from adopting their own net neutrality laws, that preemption is invalid. According to case law, an agency that does not have the power to regulate does not have the power to preempt. That means the FCC can only prevent the states from adopting net neutrality protections if the FCC has authority to adopt net neutrality protections itself.

But by re-classifying ISPs as information services under Title I of the Communications Act and re-interpreting Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act as a mission statement rather than an independent grant of authority, the FCC has deliberately removed all of its sources of authority that would allow it to adopt net neutrality protections. The FCC’s Order is explicit on this point. Since the FCC’s 2017 Order removed the agency’s authority to adopt net neutrality protections, it doesn’t have authority to prevent the states from doing so, either."

More simply, the FCC shot itself in the foot, and when it neutered its own authority over ISPs at Comcast, AT&T and Verizon's behest, it managed to also neuter its authority to pre-empt states from filling the void. Of course this could all be moot if the FCC loses its battle in court, but it's amusing all the same, and it's another example of how Ajit Pai and friends didn't really think this whole thing through.

While ISPs have whined incessantly about the headaches of having to adhere to multiple discordant net neutrality rules, that's not quite as big of a problem as they claim (especially since they already adhere to numerous rules governing phone, broadband and TV, which can vary town to town). Most of these new state laws follow the same effective template, and Wiener's office says it will work with numerous states to help them mirror California's efforts. All told, if consistency and stability were really the goal of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast lobbyists, they should have left the popular federal protections alone.

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Filed Under: ajit pai, california, fcc, net neutrality, pre-emption, scott wiener, states rights


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  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), 15 Mar 2018 @ 5:38am

    Live by the legislative sword, die by the legislative sword. I want to see the telcos beg the FCC to reinstate the rules to avoid the looming lawpocalypse. I hope no dreadful bill makes it way into law at the federal level before the mid-terms. Then we'll start talking.

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