California lawmakers have the opportunity to pass a new law that would serve as the gold standard for true net neutrality protection across the country. But a Democratic assemblyman with financial ties to the telecommunications industry just gutted it.
The California State Assembly Communications and Conveyance committee will likely vote on SB 822 on Wednesday, which would codify net neutrality into California law. Once it passes through committee, it would go to the state assembly for a full vote, at which point it would become law if it passes. The state senate has already passed the bill.
But late Tuesday evening, Miguel Santiago, a California assemblyman and chair of the Communications and Conveyance committee, edited the bill to allow for gaping loopholes that benefit the telecommunications industry and make the net neutrality legislation toothless. AT&T is one of Santiago’s largest campaign donors.
Santiago’s move has surprised and angered other Democrats, who have been pushing for net neutrality in the Golden State since the Trump administration revoked the 2015 FCC net neutrality rules. Although net neutrality is no longer protected via federal regulations, states have been lining up to pass their own legislation protecting the principle of internet service providers treating all traffic the same, regardless of the source or content.
If enough states pass laws protecting net neutrality, it would effectively nullify the FCC’s hugely unpopular decision, and may discourage major ISPs from creating “fast lanes” on the internet for services that can afford to pay — one of the biggest fears in a post-net neutrality world.
If Santiago doesn’t remove his amendments, he would be the first California Democrat to side with the Trump administration to actively destroy net neutrality, according to Fight for the Future (an internet freedoms advocacy organization).
Specifically, the amendments undermine net neutrality in a few ways. First, they would allow ISPs to charge any website a fee for people to be able to access it.
Next, they would give some content (such as content owned by the provider) preferential treatment on cellular data. That means that some content would eat up cellular data, while others would be free or less impactful to access. There’s a high likelihood that privileged content would be created by the network’s parent company, since so many telecoms companies like Comcast and, recently, AT&T, now both own the actual content, and the way it’s distributed. This loophole makes it likely that people wary about using up the data that they pay for would opt for the content privileged by their telecoms provider, which undermines consumer choice.
And finally, Santiago’s edits allow for throttling, which means intentionally slowing down content, but with a twist: Instead of slowing down the connection to consumer devices, the data is slowed at the website or service side, affecting everyone trying to access it.
Santiago achieved these amendments by literally just crossing out large chunks of specific things that ISPs are not allowed to do.
Santiago is a Democrat and a progressive who represents parts of Los Angeles. But his fifth largest donor is AT&T, and he has received over $43,000 from the “telecom services and equipment” industry over his four-year-long career as an assemblyman. AT&T also provided a charity in Santiago’s district with a giant check for $750,000.
Members of the telecom industry are registered opponents of SB 822, and representatives have reportedly been heavily lobbying assembly members, specifically with Santiago as a target.
Mashable has reached out to Assemblyman Santiago as well as AT&T to ask whether the he has been in touch with AT&T representatives regarding the bill, and to what extent any of those conversations have influenced his changes to the legislation. Neither responded before the time of publication.
On environmental protections, voting trends, and more, California has been a bellwether state for how ideas and legislation spreads across the country. But even more than its historical progressivism, California’s sheer size is what makes even its state legislation so important on the national level.
Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer explained that if a company can’t execute a policy or product in California due to state protections, it makes it far less likely that they’ll do so at a national level. That thinking applies to how Internet Service Providers might take advantage of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality.
“There’s a history of California passing consumer protections that then benefit people across the country,” Greer told Mashable. “If a state as big as California rolls out net neutrality protections, it’s a huge deterrent for ISPs to roll out these products that can’t work in California.”
SB 822 is just one of several net neutrality bills before state legislatures across the country. New York is already considering net neutrality laws that look very similar to the original SB 822, and Washington State recently instated its version of net neutrality. Greer explained that the original version of SB 822 took many factors and loophole potentials into account that are particularly difficult to legislate. A full-bodied SB 822 could be a model of legislation for other states, and ultimately, in congress.
“The internet doesn’t know borders,” Greer said. “These policies affect people everywhere.”
UPDATE 6/20/2018 2:15 p.m. ET:
SB 822 has passed through committee including Assemblyman Santiago’s edits. According to Fight for the Future, Santiago put it up for a vote before the hearing began. It passed 8-0 with all democrats on the committee voting alongside republicans. The bill’s original author, Senator Scott Wiener, was reportedly “stunned” and called the “mutilated” bill “a fake net neutrality bill.”
UPDATE 6/20/2018 6 p.m. ET:
When asked about whether campaign donations in any way influenced Assemblymember Santiago’s legislative actions, his office issued the following statement:
This is the legislative process at work. Any suggestions of actions taken today somehow being otherwise motivated are irresponsible, at best and insulting beyond that.