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California Democrats Under Fire for Siding With Telecom Lobbyists Against Net Neutrality Bill

Advocates warn that state lawmakers are now "calling for giant loopholes" that would "gut" the proposed legislation

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Advocates for net neutrality protest the federal repeal in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Credo Action/Flickr/cc)

As state lawmakers in California kick off debates on legislation that would establish the strongest net neutrality protections in the nation following a federal rollback by the Republican-controlled FCC in December, advocates are warning that Democratic legislators appear to be caving to telecommunications industry lobbyists' efforts to dramatically weaken the bill.

Senate Bill 822, written by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), will get its first public hearing on Tuesday, before the Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee. The legislation would not only reinstate the rules that were previously mandated by the FCC, but also bar zero-rating arrangements and establish protections for public safety notifications that are digitally distributed.

"It's outrageous that California Democrats would produce a document that looks like it was literally written by lobbyists for AT&T and Comcast."
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future

In response, internet service providers (ISPs) have launched a fierce attack—but, as VICE notes, "killing the bill outright could prove difficult given public anger, so consumer advocates say that lobbyists have convinced some Democratic California lawmakers to push for a massive watering down of the legislation."

Ahead of Tuesday's hearing, the legislative committee released an industry-friendly report that was widely condemned by net neutrality advocates.

"They're calling for giant loopholes that would gut SB 822 and leave California residents vulnerable to ISP scams and abuses," warned Evan Greer, deputy director for Fight for the Future. "It's outrageous that California Democrats would produce a document that looks like it was literally written by lobbyists for AT&T and Comcast."

The lawmakers' proposals may, in fact, have drawn inspiration from industry documents.

"AT&T and the California Cable & Telecommunications Association (CCTA) have privately distributed documents to lawmakers describing the ways in which the proposed bill is allegedly too strict compared to the FCC rules that are slated to be taken off the books," reports Ars Technica, which obtained the bill analyses by AT&T and CCTA, whose members include Comcast, Charter, and Cox.

Proponents of the legislation are working to counter the lobbying efforts. 

Wiener condemned the industry's "intense and comprehensive" attack on the bill, declaring, "You can't go and get federal net neutrality protections repealed, and then be surprised and indignant and complain that states are stepping in to protect consumers and the economy."

Mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, and Emeryville; the state's attorney general; and former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler—under whom the federal rules were initially enacted—have voiced their support for the bill as it was initially introduced.

"What is important right now is that California is going to lead the way," Wheeler told the San Francisco Chronicle. "If California starts down the path, then the other 49 states can say, 'Look how it's done in California and this is the right way to do it.' Someone has got to set the standard. It's incredibly important that California leads the way."

Washington and Oregon have enacted less strict state laws, and the governors of Montana, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Vermont have issued executive orders that require all ISPs that contract with state agencies to abide by net neutrality principles.

Advocates continue to celebrate the state-level initiatives but emphasize the ultimate goal of reinstating nationwide protections by passing a Constitutional Review Act (CRA) resolution that Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has introduced in Congress.

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