After months of gruelling committee proceedings, the California State Assembly on Thursday passed Senate Bill 822, all but ensuring that residents will soon enjoy the strongest net neutrality protections in the country.
"Today's vote is a huge win for Californians everywhere," State Senator Scott Wiener, the bill's principal author, told Gizmodo.
Having been amended considerably, S.B. 822 will now return to the Senate, where it is expected to pass for a second time before being sent to Governor Jerry Brown's desk for his signature or veto.
While its evolution into state law is not yet a complete lock, Thursday's penultimate vote was undoubtedly the bill's biggest hurdle to overcome, handing the Golden State's net neutrality supporters a decisive and long-awaited victory.
Introduced on the floor by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, chairman of the Communications and Conveyance Committee, S.B. 822 passed in a 58-17 vote, to the emphatic objections of several of the body's Republican members.
"This is essential to our democracy," said Santiago, adding that S.B. 822 would enact the strongest protections in the nation, while restoring "the core protections lost when Trump's FCC removed the net neutrality rules."
"Net neutrality is not about a free and open internet," argued Republican Travis Allen, an assemblyman who stood opposed to the bill. "Net neutrality is about government censorship and regulation," he said, continuing by arguing, bafflingly, that net neutrality would leave consumers unable to watch Netflix because their neighbours are downloading porn.
"Net neutrality is a violation of your first amendment rights," continued Allen, "but beyond all that, it's just a bad idea."
S.B. 822 is widely considered to be the "gold standard" of state-level net neutrality laws. If it becomes law, it will set the bar precisely where digital rights activists want it, establishing a benchmark by which the efforts other states rebelling against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be judged.
Despite net neutrality's irrefutable popularity among Americans, S.B. 822 was — and continues to be — fiercely and stealthily opposed by the industry it seeks to rein in, unshackled this year by the Trump administration and its anti-regulatory blindfire.
S.B. 822 will effectively reinstate, at least for California residents, the Title II-type protections repealed by the FCC's Republican majority. It will outlaw attempts by internet service providers to discriminate against websites and services by blocking or throttling internet traffic, and prohibit companies such AT&T and Comcast from charging subscribers new fees to have select apps or services load properly.
The bill also prohibits ISPs from charging app and content providers exorbitant fees to reach end users and enjoins them from congesting internet traffic to exact unreasonable payments from companies that interlink with the ISP networks to connect consumers with other parts of the web.
What's more, it bans the use of zero-rating schemes designed solely to financially benefit broadband providers — a practice whereby ISPs incentivise the exclusive use of apps and services they own by excluding them from ISP-created data limits.
"An open internet has been a crucial place for California's Black artists, entrepreneurs, and activists to create freely, without needing the approval of traditional media gatekeepers and without fear that their work will be shutdown by an ISP eager to overcharge or censor content," said Brandi Collins, senior campaign director for Colour of Change. "With SB 822, we can use the full potential of the internet to organise for political power, fight injustice, build our businesses and express our joy and creativity."
As Wiener's bill began to gain momentum, lobbyists working on behalf of Comcast, Verizon, and other major providers resorted to disinformation. A deceptive robocall campaign in California misled residents by claiming that S.B. 822 would "increase your mobile phone bill by $US30 ($41) a month and slow down your data." That message echoed Twitter ads paid for by a so-called "technology advocacy coalition" known as CalInnovates, which counts among its partners AT&T.
The astroturf campaign generated by a host of shadowy political groups is working to cast S.B. 822 as an "internet tax." But in reality, it is the ISPs themselves threatening to hike costs in reaction to the bill, as it would ban certain coercive tactics, such as congesting online traffic, which broadband companies appeared eager to use in the wake of the FCC repeal to boost their profits margins.
Out-of-touch Sacramento politicians are scheming to create a new internet tax that will raise your bills.
— Internet Forever (@Internet_4Ever) August 24, 2018
In June, Weiner's bill was set to be combined with a second bill, S.B. 460, introduced by a fellow State Senator Kevin de León. The process, known as contingent enactment, meant that either both bills had to pass in the legislature or neither would.
Whereas S.B. 822 contained a virtual facsimile of the 2015 Open Internet Order repealed by the FCC in December, León's bill would require state agencies to only do business with companies that respect net neutrality principles. Before the Assembly vote, however, the amendments joining the two bills were stripped, allowing S.B. 822 to advance alone.
"The core premise of net neutrality is that we get to decide where we go on the internet, as opposed to telecom and cable companies telling us where to go," said Wiener, touting a "broad and diverse coalition" of advocates supporting the bill against the incursion of powerful industry lobbyists.
"We have one final vote left to go," he said, "to get the strongest net neutrality protections in the nation passed out of the legislature and onto the governor's desk."