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California’s net neutrality bill has just been “eviscerated” (UPDATED)

After intense lobbying from AT&T and Comcast, lawmakers led by Senator Miguel Santiago removed the teeth from the bill.

California’s net neutrality bill has just been “eviscerated” (UPDATED)
[Photo: Rafał Konieczny/Wikimedia Commons]

A California Assemblyman who received substantial donations from AT&T has led a move to de-tooth California’s promising network neutrality bill and succeeded. The bill, SB 822 sponsored by San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener, was considered to be a gold standard state law to fill the regulatory void left by the FCC’s abandonment of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

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The California Assembly’s Communications and Conveyance committee was expected to vote on Wiener’s bill Wednesday, but the Democratic and Republican members of the group voted unanimously in favor of the amended bill before the hearing even began.

Parts of the bill that prohibited broadband providers from setting up internet “fast lanes,” offering their own services at no cost to data limits (“zero rating“), and treating all kinds of internet traffic the same regardless of content type, were simply deleted. A staffer in Wiener’s office told me just as the committee hearing started that the bill had already been “eviscerated.”

The committee’s amendments to SB 822 came after months of intense lobbying by AT&T and its CALInnovates advocacy group. Comcast was also active, through its local trade organization the California Cable & Telecommunications Association. SB 822 made it through a Senate vote intact, winning by a 23-12 margin. But the lobbyists bore down on Santiago and other committee members, and their efforts paid off.

Sources told me in the days leading up to the hearing that it was Santiago who proposed and pushed the amendments to Wiener’s bill. AT&T, according to VoteSmart, is Santiago’s fifth largest campaign donor. Mashable reports that AT&T also wrote a $750,000 check for a charity event held in Santiago’s district.

Network neutrality protections have proven popular with the public, but AT&T, Comcast, and their ilk have been very successful in their efforts to override the public’s position. AT&T even hired the sketchy personal attorney of Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, to influence the highest levels of power on the company’s two biggest policy goals of the year–doing away with network neutrality rules and getting the go-ahead for its acquisition of Time Warner. Mission accomplished on both counts. And as EFF attorney Ernesto Falcon explained to me, the two issues are closely related: It’s the content AT&T is getting from Time Warner, like HBO and CNN, that it wants to zero rate as a way of sweetening its service bundles.

At the hearing today, a long line of witnesses–private citizens and representatives of small groups–approached the microphone at the beginning of the hearing, stating uniformly: “We support the bill as written and oppose the hostile amendments to the bill.”

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Some speakers extemporized to express their outrage: “I’m really disgusted with what happened here today, this is really disgusting,” said one women from Davis, California. She was quickly cut off by the chairman of the committee, Santiago.

Their opinions didn’t matter.

A number of cable and telecom representatives in attendance–including Cox Communications, Comcast, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and the wireless association CTIA–voiced their opposition to the Wiener bill even after the amendments.

“The proposed amendments are just an attempt to move the conversation forward and offer a strong network neutrality law,” Santiago said. Santiago said the amendments to SB 822 were meant to make the protections in the bill mirror those provided in the 2015 Open Internet Order, which did not specifically prohibit ISPs from zero-rating services. But Santiago’s red pen went much further than that, limiting the state’s ability to stop ISPs from discriminating against certain types of legal traffic.

UPDATE: 2:15 p.m. Eastern: SB 822 author Scott Wiener has withdrawn his bill from consideration in the California Assembly. Wiener said the amendments passed by the committee before the committee hearing weakened the bill so much that he could no longer sponsor and support it.

UPDATE: 2:30 p.m. Eastern: Despite Wiener’s objection, the amended bill was carried through committee without change.

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