Justice Department sues California over brand-new net neutrality law
Wednesday, October 03, 2018
As the internet develops, so have the controversies associated with regulating it. “Net neutrality” is more than just a catchy phrase referencing internet accessibility; it is the principle of equal treatment of all internet data.
As it stands now, companies can favor certain data, content, and websites over others, which is a violation of First Amendment free speech protections, according to net neutrality advocates.
Left as is, large telecommunications companies can potentially discriminate against users, platforms, websites, content, applications, equipment, and methods of communication.
This is done by "...blocking or slowing data based on content or from favoring websites or video streams from companies that pay extra." Regulations that uphold net neutrality also deter companies from "zero rating" — the practice of not counting certain content, like telecom company subsidiaries’ video streams, against the monthly data cap.
In order to avoid these data and content manipulations, states have passed laws, as California did Sept. 30.
As goes California, so goes the nation, right? The California law, which would go into effect Jan. 1, 2019, is one of the strictest in the country. This is why it didn’t take long for the federal government to announce a lawsuit against the Golden State.
The suit may even end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark case that will determine the future of the federal government’s role in regulating internet content and operations.
The federal side of the debate contends that the Internet is not under state jurisdiction since it transcends state boundaries as interstate commerce. A convenient argument, this view ignores how less popular content can be undermined — a view that places net neutrality squarely in the arena of information democracy and diversity.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions summarized the federal government’s position on the matter. He states: "Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce — the federal government does… Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy."
Internet service providers (ISPs), like Comcast and AT&T, can also sue California over the law.
Previously, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had placed its own regulations on ISPs, but companies lobbied to repeal even those more subdued regulations. This was the 2015 Open Internet Order, issued and then later repealed by the FCC itself, effective June 2018.
Since the FCC’s repeal of the Obama-era order went into effect in June, net neutrality advocates have been on pins and needles, awaiting the next phase of the battle.
The California case delivers in this regard. Both Washington state and Oregon have already passed similarly principled net neutrality laws.
What makes California’s law so threatening is it is thorough and detailed — closing loopholes present in similar laws. Closed loopholes include banning zero-rating, described above, and interconnection fees. These fees are "charges a company pays when its data enters the internet provider's network."
While California’s law is new, the principles behind it are not. As the federal government changes its views on regulating ISPs and the role of the FCC, this case presents the opportunity to clarify federal and state roles with regards to internet regulations.
More specifically, the case hinges on how broadband access is classified. States have had jurisdiction over local telecommunications services, but the FCC classifies broadband services as an interstate issue and therefore subject to federal regulations.
This is the fundamental issue here: how is broadband classified, and then, who can regulate it?
In the end, net neutrality advocates pledge that state-initiated internet regulations will keep user fees down and keep ISPs from doubling as "gatekeepers, granting or denying access to certain websites and slowing speeds for sites that can’t afford to pay."
Think of your favorite quirky, offbeat, fun, and informative websites gone because they are unable to pay required fees. Not exactly the online experience you have come to know and love, is it?
The state of California agrees.
The internet is not the only battle the feds are currently having with California. Other big battles include immigration laws, emissions standards, and the sale of federal lands.
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