EXPLAINER: California’s net neutrality law springs to life

by Jeremy

More than three years ago, Trump-era regulators killed federal net neutrality regulations designed to prevent AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and other major internet providers from exploiting their dominance to favor certain services or apps over others. In response, seven states and Puerto Rico enacted their net neutrality policies. The most expansive effort of this sort was in California, which will start enforcing its law on Thursday — with potentially significant consequences for the rest of the U.S.

WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?

In a nutshell, it’s the principle that internet providers should treat all web traffic equally to ensure a free and open network. It’s pretty much how the internet has worked since its creation. Consumer advocates, internet companies like Mozilla, and Democrats were concerned that huge broadband providers might wield their clout to boost their own business.

WHAT DOES CALIFORNIA’S LAW DO?

It follows the contours of the Obama-era federal regulation the Trump administration spiked. That rule banned internet providers like Comcast or AT&T from slowing down, blocking access to websites, or charging internet companies like Netflix for a faster route to customers. The California law took a step further in banning some forms of “zero-rating” — a term for when a cable or phone company exempts a service from data caps. Net-neutrality advocates say such programs undermine competition by potentially tilting users to the sponsored app away from rivals.

The Trump administration sued to block California’s 2018 law, preventing it from taking effect for years. The Biden administration dropped that suit. The telecom industry is still fighting the law, but a judge ruled that California could begin enforcing it in February.

WHAT ABOUT THAT FEDERAL REGULATION?

Efforts to put federal net-neutrality rules in place go back more than a decade. Courts quashed efforts before 2015 when the Democrat-run FCC approved more vital regulations based on a fundamental 1934 communications law. In addition to the standard net-neutrality protections, that order gave the FCC broad powers to go after companies for business practices that weren’t explicitly banned. Courts upheld the rules, but Trump’s FCC undid them, saying they were “heavy-handed, utility-style regulation” that impeded investment in internet infrastructure. Since the law was spiked, net-neutrality opponents point out that the internet has gone on unchecked. Supporters of the rules say the telecom industry has been kept in check because of public pressure and the threat of regulation and legislation.

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