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CA Net Neutrality Bill Moving Quickly

A California-only net neutrality bill would maintain a level playing field, its proponents say. But industry figures are pushing back, saying the measure is costly and unnecessary.

The decision about whether California can or should create its own rules governing the Internet is not only a complicated one but a potentially expensive undertaking.

One bill moving quickly through the state Senate puts the cost at $5.5 million for the Public Utilities Commission to establish California-only rules and guidelines that would ensure what is known as net neutrality and keep the Internet free and open. But, it’s an approach that the telecommunications, cable and wireless industries say would be far too slow to keep up with ever-changing technology and violate federal law.

The measure, SB 460 by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, has already cleared the Senate Energy Utilities and Communications Committee. This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to put the measure on its suspense file.

“Regulating the Internet by the PUC will create in California a collision between the delay and the expense of bureaucracy with the speed of innovation that has served California so well,” Bill Devine, an AT&T vice president, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

“The fiscal impact of this bill will be substantial,” he added, with the PUC required to create a new division, hire staff, and initiate rulemaking.

California lawmakers are examining a response to a December decision by the Federal Communications Commission to overturn rules that banned Internet providers from blocking or slowing down websites — rules that consumer groups and tech companies say threaten consumer choice and could stifle innovation.

In particular, de Leon, in testimony last week, told his colleagues that many Americans depend on a free and open Internet for their livelihood and that net neutrality would preserve the level playing field that he said had been established by the Obama administration.

“It is also fundamentally an issue of free speech and free expression — about who has access to which ideas and who gets to decide which information you see and how fast your Internet works,” de Leon said.

Under Obama-era rules established in 2015, broadband providers such as AT&T and Verizon were required to treat all websites equally. That meant no preferential treatment to speed up some sites while slowing down others.

Such practices, those companies say, are simply not done or part of their business.

“I want to make it clear. … We do not block websites, we do not censor online content, we do not throttle or degrade Internet traffic based on content, and we do not unfairly discriminate in the treatment of internet traffic. Period,” Devine said.

In addition to AT&T, representatives from Comcast, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, TechNet and the Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke out this week against de Leon’s bill.

Republicans say California ought to stay out of federal rulemaking.

“This is another example of California deciding that it is the United States, and a go-it-alone state,” said Sen. Jim Nelson, a Republican from Tehama and a member of the Appropriations Committee. “It creates a problem to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Tuesday joined 21 other states in suing the FCC, saying that a “free and open Internet drives innovation, economic growth, and consumer choice.”

There’s also the chance that Congress could act, with Democrats shy just one vote of the 51 they need to pass a measure to override the FCC’s decision, according to a report earlier this week by the Washington Post.

That’s the path Democrats in California say they would prefer.

“We all ideally would like one national uniform standard set by the FCC or by Congress. I think everyone agrees on that,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who has proposed his own bill to address net neutrality. “But if the federal government is going to abdicate its responsibility to protect a free and open Internet, then we are left with no choice than to go and do it state by state.”