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The fight for net neutrality isn’t just for consumers. It’s a fight for California

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, reads from a list of consumer and open internet advocacy groups who came to Sacramento to lobby the Legislature on his net neutrality bill.
Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, reads from a list of consumer and open internet advocacy groups who came to Sacramento to lobby the Legislature on his net neutrality bill. Bay Area News Group/TNS

As you might have heard by now, the fight to save net neutrality isn’t over. So it’s worth understanding exactly what consumers — particularly those of us who live in California — will be fighting for in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Here’s a hint: It won’t be as noble as the current narrative suggests.

To review, the argument over net neutrality is essentially an argument over the handling of web traffic. Enacted during the Obama administration, the rules required that internet service providers — run by telecommunications behemoths AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Verizon — treat all web content equally.

That meant Comcast, which owns MSNBC, was banned from deliberately slowing the connection speeds of customers live-streaming news on rival CNN or even on Facebook. And it also meant AT&T, which was just cleared to buy Time Warner, couldn’t charge more to access Netflix, the way it does for access to HBO.

But the Trump administration's Federal Communications Commission upended all of this on Monday, officially repealing net neutrality.

Instead of California's Facebook, Apple, Google and Twitter running the show online, coming up with innovative apps and websites that drive entertainment and communication around the world, now telecommunications companies have the legal power to shape the internet.

Never mind AT&T's insistence that “the internet will continue to function just as it did yesterday” and Comcast's vow not to “block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content.” Telecom giants can now do as they wish, and they probably will once riled-up politicians and consumers stop paying attention.

The pushback to the FCC's about-face has been understandably swift, fierce and surprisingly bipartisan. Dozens of states have stepped up with legislation for their own net neutrality rules to guarantee their residents have access to a free and open internet. Lawsuits agasinst the Trump administration are flying, too.

In California, Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, is carrying a measure to ban telecommunications companies from blocking websites, throttling connection speeds and generally prioritizing some web content for a fee. Senate Bill 822, which cleared the Senate and should go before the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee in the coming days, also imposes some restrictions on how wireless companies handle web traffic.

Washington and Oregon have already passed laws reinstating net neutrality, and the Democratic governors of several other states have issued executive orders banning contracts with broadband companies that don’t abide by it.

A bill also is stalled in Congress and, on Monday, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris explained that “House Democrats are trying to gather support to force a vote to save net neutrality just like we did in the Senate.”

Meanwhile, Jessica Rosenworcel, one of only two FCC commissioners who voted to uphold net neutrality, is rallying the troops: “If the arc of history is long," she said this past week, "we are going to bend this toward a more just outcome.”

It’s unclear whether these piecemeal tactics will work. The FCC majority has already promised a fight.

And consumers can't be blamed for wondering which side is the lesser evil: the giant telecommunication companies or the tech titans of Silicon Valley.

Everyone enjoys a good Netflix binge for a few bucks a month and it's become almost redundant to talk about getting ripped off subscribing to cable. We’re looking at you, Comcast.

But Facebook also has repeatedly flubbed on consumer privacy, perhaps most disastrously with Cambridge Analytica. It's no wonder Congress is considering regulating the tech industry and voters this November will consider an initiative to better protect their privacy online.

So we'll make it easy: Californians, root for the home team.

Net neutrality isn't just about your right as a consumer not to be extorted for the privilege of surfing whatever website you want. It's also about who controls the internet — Silicon Valley billionaires or a bunch of East Coast telecom magnates.

Sorry, America, but let's face it: That California's will do it best.