Net Neutrality Law Upheld In California
Net neutrality is back. A few years after the topic created waves all over social media and the news, it once more takes the limelight. In January 2022, California courts upheld the state’s net neutrality rule, renewing a fight between telecom companies and supporters of “the free web.”
Photo Courtesy: Bill O'Leary/Washington Post
Net neutrality as we know it reached mainstream attention back in 2017, but the concept has been around since the Great Depression. The origins of net neutrality began in 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Communications Act, which required phone companies to treat all calls as the same rather than misusing their ability to benefit their own self interest at the expense of competitors.
This concept was then applied to the internet in 2002, making it illegal to prioritize certain websites and manipulate the speed of traffic. Regardless, internet providers such as Comcast eventually began to manipulate web traffic to benefit themselves. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spent years fighting court battles and growing public support attempting to end those malpractices and to institute net neutrality, finally succeeding in 2015 when the commission voted in favor of new regulations.
For proponents of net neutrality, this victory only lasted for a few short years. In 2018, the FCC, later supported by former President Donald Trump, ended the rules enacted 3 years earlier despite public pushback. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai defended this decision, arguing that limitations imposed by net neutrality would discourage investment and diminish rural access to the web. Pai also stated that the internet would not be affected at all without net neutrality regulations.
Despite Pai’s claims, service providers have a long history of gaming their utilities to benefit themselves and to harm competitors, made possible by a lack of regulatory oversight. AT&T blocked Skype on Apple iPhones from 2007-2009 and gave the same treatment to Google Voice in 2009. From 2011-2013, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon blocked Google Wallet because they had stakes in a competing company, IRIS. These are a few of many examples of internet providers blocking and manipulating consumers and competitors.
Despite the furor that centered around ending net neutrality, the cries of protest eventually died down. And despite the many concerns, Pai's prediction came true: the internet remained free and did not witness skyrocketing malpractice. Telecom companies did not begin manipulating the web as many expected.
As of more recent, President Joe Biden has vowed to bring back the net neutrality rules that were ended when he was Vice President, claiming that people deserve free access to the internet. With a vacant seat on the FCC board, Biden needs a confirmation of his nominee before true efforts to restore net neutrality can begin. With these events unfolding, the debate on this century-old problem could arise again.
However, a different matter relating to net neutrality has taken prominence. After federal net neutrality laws were struck down, many states chose to sue or enact their own rules. California started the process of developing one of the most expansive efforts to create its own new legislature and began to enforce this law in 2021.
This law spurred a myriad of lawsuits from companies such as USTelecom, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, who still are lobbying against what they consider to be laws that are harmful to their business. However, a U.S. appeals court upheld California’s law, following the decision of a lower court. The court stated that there was too great of a risk to the industry and consumers without the law, and that it could open the door to worsening industry practices. Following this, the companies who had sued released a statement that they were “disappointed” and that they would continue to pursue other options.
This is only a prequel to the second net neutrality saga that is unfolding. Though supporters of net neutrality may have claimed a single victory, there is still a long path forward before the FCC can reclaim its authority. Furthermore, telecom and internet companies will continue to push against these rules, creating no immediate ending in sight. However, for some, this is a small win in an area where there will need to be many more. For others, the fight is just beginning again.