Court Decision Allows California to Enforce Net Neutrality Law

In 2018, former California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill making the state the first to enact a net neutrality law. The Trump administration sued to block it, and the Biden administration dropped that suit, but the telecom industry had filed a separate suit. Now, U.S. District Court judge John A. Mendez denied the telecom suit, allowing the state to enforce the 2018 law. State senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) called the decision “a huge victory for open access to the Internet, our democracy and our economy,” while some industry groups suggest federal legislation would be a preferred approach to a state-by-state model.

NBC News reports that the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), ACA Connects, USTelecom and NCTA – The Internet & Television Association (formerly the National Cable & Telecommunications Association) “urged Congress to set net-neutrality rules for the country rather than relying on states … [since] a state-by-state approach to Internet regulation will confuse consumers and deter innovation.”

The impetus behind California’s law was the Federal Communications Commission’s decision in 2017 to repeal national net-neutrality rules. The FCC believed it would discourage ISPs from providing higher speeds, but net neutrality advocates argued that, without net neutrality, ISPs would favor their own services.

With net neutrality, Internet providers are banned “from slowing down customers’ data streams based on the content they are viewing … [and barred] from speeding up access to websites willing to pay extra for special treatment.”

The Washington Post reports that the ruling will require “AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and other telecom giants to treat all Web traffic equally, potentially setting the stage for states nationwide to follow California’s lead and adopt tough new protections of their own.”

Stanford University law professor Barbara van Schewick, who wrote one of the legal briefs in support of the law, commented on the telecom lawsuit. “The judge found that the law is on a solid legal foundation and that the ISPs trying to overturn it are not likely to prevail,” she said. “The judge found, as I’ve long argued, that an agency that says it has no power to regulate, it has no power to tell others they can’t regulate.”

New acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel “hailed the decision in a tweet.” WaPo notes that, “state lawmakers across the country had been eyeing the California case for years, hoping a legal resolution in the state’s favor might open the door for them to try to craft their own open-Internet rules without facing a similar legal threat.”

At the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, senior counselor Andrew Jay Schwartzman added that the latest ruling “bodes well for other states that have adopted net neutrality requirements.”