Days after a California fire agency complained that Verizon restricted its internet access during an emergency, California lawmakers on Friday approved perhaps the strongest net neutrality law in the nation.
Senate Bill 822 bans internet service providers from blocking access to legal online content or forcing websites to pay more money for faster speeds. The Legislature sent Gov. Jerry Brown the bill — bucking AT&T, Verizon, and other telecom giants — on the final day of the legislative session. It would restore internet protections that federal regulators rescinded last year.
“This is basic consumer protections, protecting small and midsized business, protecting labor unions and anyone else who relies on the internet,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who introduced the bill.
The concept of net neutrality rests on the idea that internet service providers should be required to provide equal access to all websites and applications without purposely stifling customer speeds or connections to one site over another. The Federal Communications Commission enacted detailed regulations in 2015 during Barack Obama’s presidency that treated high-speed internet providers as public utilities and prohibited the companies from favoring one form of content over another.
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But the commission reversed the rules in December, sparking fears of a more restrictive internet experience and inspiring state lawmakers to provide protections for consumers in California.
The Legislature sent Brown the bill a week after news broke that Verizon slowed internet speeds for the Santa Clara County Fire Department while the agency assisted firefighters battling the largest fire in California history. The Fire Department informed Verizon that firefighters were working on a dangerous Mendocino County blaze and were told to buy a more expensive data plan, according to a legal brief Santa Clara officials filed in a lawsuit against the FCC decision last week.
The news enraged state legislators in districts recently struck by massive wildfires. They sent Verizon’s chief executive a letter condemning the company’s actions and launched a series of Capitol hearings to probe the complaints.
The Assembly approved the bill Thursday on a 58-17 vote and the Senate followed Friday, signing off 27-12. SB 822’s overwhelming support belied an explosive battle between lawmakers that temporarily derailed the proposal.
Under mounting pressure from lobbyists, the bill hit a major roadblock in the Assembly Committee on Communications and Conveyance, lead by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, in June. Wiener said proposed amendments “eviscerated the bill” and he refused to accept the changes.
Santiago, the Los Angeles Democrat who leads the committee, amended the bill anyway. He later said he wanted to keep the proposal moving to continue the conversation, suggesting it would have otherwise died.
“Passing a weak, neutered bill is exactly the wrong direction for our state,” Wiener said at the time.
The move inspired a social media “firestorm” against Santiago, who said advocates of net neutrality threatened him and harassed his wife.
“My personal family pictures have been stolen from my social media platforms and used to create memes,” Santiago said. “Really? Using pictures of my kids? This is a new low.”
The legislators eventually resolved their differences after a brief stalemate and pushed the proposal to the finish line. A handful of other states have passed protections since the FCC’s reversal, but Wiener said the California law more closely parallels the Obama-era policy.
Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bill.