California’s Net Neutrality Bill Is Back from the Dead, with the Help of Its Biggest Detractor

An ambitious net neutrality bill in California that AT&T lobbyists managed to kill earlier this summer is back from the dead. And this time, one of the bill’s biggest detractors is actually co-sponsoring the bill.

California state senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat, re-introduced Senate Bill 822 this week, a bill that would establish the most robust net neutrality protections in the country. The bill enshrines not only the fundamentals of net neutrality, such as prohibiting ISPs from throttling or blocking sites, but also prohibits other telecom trickery, such as zero rating—a practice where companies provide access to certain parts of the internet for “free” and charge for others.

Since the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal federal net neutrality protections last year, multiple states have been working to establish state-level laws in their place. More than half the states have at least considered this type of legislation, but so far only Washington state and Oregon (which passed a bill that goes into effect next year), have passed net neutrality laws. California’s would be the most ambitious law yet, if it can pass, a possibility that’s more likely this time around now that the bill’s biggest detractor is on board.

“This is such a badass bill, to be frank,” Evan Greer, the campaign director of Fight for the Future, a leading digital rights nonprofit, said in a phone interview. “It’s such a strong bill and California is such a large state, there is a lot at stake for the telecom companies. This would be a real concrete blow to this industry.”

SB 822 was originally introduced back in June, but after aggressive lobbying from major telecom companies including AT&T, state assemblyperson Miguel Santiago, also a Democrat, gutted the bill while it was under consideration in the committee he chairs—the Communications and Conveyance Committee. The changes were so drastic that Wiener decided to pull the bill entirely.

In response, pro-net neutrality constituents put pressure on Santiago to get on board. Greer told me hundreds of constituents phoned Santiago’s office, and Fight for the Future managed to raise more than $10,000 in donations to put up a billboard in Santiago’s district shaming him for not supporting the bill.

A mock up of the billboard. Image: Fight for the Future

In the end, they didn’t need to put up the billboard—Santiago reexamined the bill and co-sponsored its reintroduction, with only minor, wonky changes to the language. With Santiago on board, Greer told me they’re optimistic the bill can make it through the state legislature this time, but noted that telecom lobbyists will also be aggressively campaigning against the bill, evidence of which has already surfaced in the form of digital ads calling net neutrality an “internet tax.”

“This is not a slam dunk, it’s been a battle every step of the way to get it this far and now we have to fight tooth and nail to get it over the finish line,” Greer said.

Listen to our podcast about the world’s greatest mysteries that were solved by science.