Defenders of the open internet celebrated a major victory late Tuesday after a federal judge ruled that a California law establishing strong net neutrality protections can take effect, a severe blow to the telecom giants that spent big money trying to kill the measure through aggressive lobbying and litigation.
The California state legislature approved the protections in 2018 after former President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—then headed by ex-Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai—voted to repeal national net neutrality rules in late 2017, opening the door to throttling and other telecom manipulation and degradation of internet service.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge John Mendez of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California rejected a telecom industry motion for a preliminary injunction against the Golden State’s attempt to preserve and strengthen open internet protections in the wake of the FCC’s rollback of federal standards.
“We applaud the court for affirming that California has the power to protect access to the internet, and that net neutrality is vital for healthcare, education, public safety, and economic growth,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “This is an important victory for all Californians and for our democracy.”
Brought in 2018 by four groups representing such telecom behemoths as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, the industry-led legal effort came on top of a lawsuit filed that same year by the Trump Justice Department. Earlier this month, the Biden administration withdrew the DOJ challenge, a move that Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel celebrated as a key step toward restoring net neutrality nationwide.
America’s Communications Association, CTIA, the NCTA, and USTelecom said they plan to review Mendez’s ruling before “deciding on next steps,” including a possible appeal.
Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement Tuesday that “telecom lobbyists used every dirty trick in the book to try to kill off California’s gold standard net neutrality law” and voiced confidence that any appeal will fall flat.
“They spent millions on lobbying. They drove misleading robocalls to senior citizens. They propped up fake astroturf organizations, paid off an academic, and lied through their teeth. And they still lost,” said Greer. “That’s because net neutrality is one of the most popular policies of the last century.”
“People from across the political spectrum can agree that we don’t want our cable and phone companies controlling what we can see and do on the internet, or killing off startups to solidify the monopoly power of Big Tech giants,” Greer continued. “We’ve been saying it for years and we’ll say it again: all you telecom lobbyists are bound to lose. Now we’re one step closer to net neutrality being the law of the land.”
California state Sen. Scott Wiener, the Democratic author of the net neutrality measure, celebrated the judge’s ruling on Twitter.
“SB 822 is the strongest net neutrality law in the nation,” Wiener wrote. “We worked incredibly hard to pass this law, overcoming massive corporate opposition. California can now fully protect an open internet.”
Since Democrats took full control of the federal government last month, activists have been pressuring the Biden administration and congressional Democrats to restore net neutrality protections at the national level. Following Tuesday’s ruling, Greer said Congress should use California’s efforts as a roadmap and “ensure that any future legislative protections are at least as good as California’s law—rock solid, with no loopholes for devious ISPs to abuse.”
As the Washington Post‘s Tony Romm reported last month, “Reinstating those protections [nationwide] may prove difficult for Rosenworcel and her Democratic peers, at least at first. The FCC, with two Democrats and two Republicans, is politically deadlocked, lacking a fifth member.”
“The process of naming that fifth member of the FCC, either a new Democratic chair or commissioner, is likely to span months—preventing Rosenworcel from forging ahead as interim leader for the time being,” Romm noted. “In the meantime, advocates said they plan to dial up the pressure, aiming to ensure Biden makes a pick who supports their cause and Senate Democrats act quickly to return the commission to its full strength.”
In a statement last month after Democrats won control of the Senate, Greer argued that the party has “no excuse” not to “get to work right away protecting people’s basic rights in the digital age.”
“This means quickly confirming a new chair of the Federal Communications Commission who will restore net neutrality and ensure everyone has affordable internet access in the midst of a pandemic,” said Greer.
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