California’s Net Neutrality Bill

On the last day possible, Jerry Brown, the Governor of California passed SB 822, a state net neutrality bill into law. Within hours the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the California legislation.

As bill is relatively short and straightforward. The law applies to both landline and mobile broadband. The prohibitions against ISP behavior are detailed more clearly than in the old FCC net neutrality rules. Specifically, the California net neutrality law:

  • Prohibits ISPs from blocking lawful content;
  • Prohibits ISPs from impairing or degrading lawful Internet traffic except as is necessary for reasonable network management;
  • Prohibits ISPs from requiring compensation, monetary or otherwise, from edge providers (companies like Netflix or Facebook) for delivering Internet traffic or content;
  • Prohibits paid prioritization;
  • Prohibits zero-rating;
  • Prohibits interference with end user’s ability to select content, applications, services or devices;
  • Prohibits ISPs from offering any product that evades any of the above prohibitions;
  • Requires the full and accurate public disclosure of network management practices, performance, and clearly-worded terms of service.

As you would expect, the big ISPs in the state like AT&T and Comcast vehemently opposed the legislation and almost derailed its passage. Interestingly, the big edge providers like Google, Facebook and Netflix have remained quiet on the new law.

This is already shaping up to be one of the most interesting legal fights we’ve ever seen concerning the FCC. Chairman Pai and the other Republican FCC Commissioners immediately declared that the new law is invalid and that states can’t override FCC policy. The lawsuit filed by the Justice department says that California is “attempting to subvert the Federal Government’s deregulatory approach” to the Internet.

That’s where it gets interesting, because the FCC didn’t deregulate broadband. They instead took themselves out of the picture as a broadband regulator by cancelling Title II regulation of broadband, and passing regulation to the Federal Trade Commission.

The FCC could have chosen a different path, which would have been to continue to regulate broadband, but choosing to not require any specific regulatory requirements. That’s the tactic the agency has taken in the past when it decided to end some telephone regulations. The FCC still has the legal authority to re-regulate those telephone issues, but exercises its authority to not regulate – and maintaining the authority to authority is the key issue in this case. The FCC deliberately killed Title II regulation to make it harder for future a FCC to regulate broadband – but in doing so they literally wrote the agency out of the broadband regulation business.

The courts will have to decide if the federal government has any basis for overriding the California law. The FCC created a legal void when they walked away from regulating broadband. In regulatory terms broadband is not deregulated – it is not regulated, and while perhaps a subtle language difference, it’s a huge distinction.

The legal question is not if California is challenging the FCC’s authority to deregulate broadband, because the FCC themselves say they no longer have any authority over broadband. The courts will have to instead decide if a state can step into a regulatory void when the federal government walks away from regulating an industry. There are numerous lawyers saying that California has a strong legal position.

This is such a major decision that I’m guessing it’s going to have to eventually get resolved by the Supreme Court – and that’s going to take a while. The FCC created this situation by abrogating their responsibility to regulate broadband. It’s nearly unthinkable that one of the major industries in the country, operated mostly by a small number of giant companies should not be regulated. But the regulatory mess we have with broadband ultimately lies with Congress which has not passed an update to the telecom rules since 1996, when dial-up was our portal to the Internet.