One net neutrality bill wins, one loses in the California legislature

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One strong network neutrality bill – senate bill 822 – was passed by the California senate yesterday, but a second one – SB 460 – failed in the assembly.

SB 822 was carried by senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco). It reinstates the “bright line” net neutrality rules adopted in 2015, then scrapped in 2017 by the Federal Communications Commission: no blocking, throttling or paid prioritisation. It also takes a couple of general rules from the 2015 decision and makes them specific: no non-neutral zero rating and no evading net neutrality regulations via upstream interconnections to other companies.

Yesterday’s vote in the California senate was 27 aye, 12 no and 1 abstention. All the no votes and the abstention came from republicans. One republican, Ling Ling Chang (R – Orange), and all senate democrats voted aye. It’s now up to governor Jerry Brown to sign it or veto it.

But that’s only half the story. Twenty-seven assembly democrats joined all their republican colleagues and opposed SB 460. As promised in July and re-introduced in August, the bill would have required state and local agencies to buy broadband service from Internet service providers that abide by net neutrality rules. Then earlier this week, the assembly’s democratic leadership decided to water down SB 460, making it much less effective.

Even hobbled as it was, AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and other big telecoms companies opposed it. That apparently was too much for the 52 assembly members who either said no or abstained when it was time to vote on SB 460. Since it’s the number of aye votes that matter – 41 ayes are required for a bill to pass in the assembly – an abstention has the same effect as voting no. Legislators can oppose a bill by ducking it.

One republican abstained, and the rest voted no. Thirteen democrats voted no, and 14 abstained.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles), who tried to rip the guts out of SB 822 in June and then changed his mind in July, voted aye. But his two wingmen on his committee – Eduardo Garcia (D – Imperial) and Evan Low (D – Santa Clara) – were among the democrats who helped kill SB 460 by ducking it.

It was important because SB 822 will be challenged in federal court, and it’s not certain it will survive. Supporters say it’s crafted in such a way that federal judges will bless it, but there are very good arguments on the other side that say they won’t.

On the other hand, SB 460 would have set down rules for spending California taxpayers’ money, which is solidly within state authority. As proposed in early August, it would have been an important and effective back stop for SB 822. Telecoms lobbyists chalked up a significant win yesterday.