A push for California to establish its own “net neutrality” doctrine, after the Trump administration rescinded federal rules, has technically advanced in the state Legislature. But the bill’s author says his proposal has been “eviscerated.”
Net neutrality, in essence, says that Internet providers, such as Comcast or AT&T, may not favor one web service over a competitor’s. Some Democratic lawmakers have sought to implement a net neutrality policy for the state, after the Federal Communications Commission rolled back Obama-era rules.
But the legislation’s hearing, in the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee, started unusually. Chairman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) immediately called a vote to amend the bill. Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill’s author, objected, as did some of the committee members.
“We’re entitled to a hearing, and you’re voting before the hearing even happens? How is that appropriate?” Wiener said.
Wiener’s bill had spelled out specific restrictions pushed by consumer advocates, including some the Obama-era FCC order did not. For instance, it would have prohibited “zero-rating,” where providers exempt some content from counting against data usage. AT&T has zero-rated its DirecTV service on some plans.
The amendments deleted most specific restrictions, leaving in place a more general ban on slowing down web traffic. It also prohibits Internet providers from charging websites to prioritize their traffic. AT&T, one of California’s most influential lobbyists, supported the changes, which passed before any debate.
That led to sharp words between Wiener and Santiago, and an effort by Wiener to pull his bill without a vote.
“[They] are extreme amendments and gut the bill,” Wiener said. He then declared he would withdraw the bill from the committee’s consideration—which the committee did not agree to.
Santiago argued doing so would effectively kill any form of net neutrality legislation at the state Capitol this year.
He urged Wiener “to continue this conversation, rather than to become a martyr with no bill.”
The amended bill passed 8-2, despite Wiener’s objection, and will continue to advance in the Assembly.
Democratic state Senator Kevin de León, who is running to unseat incumbent U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, had previously offered a competing net neutrality proposal. Wiener and De León announced earlier this week that they would instead link their legislation, so they would work in tandem. The committee did not accept those amendments.
Net Neutrality Bill Not The First To Be Neutered In California Legislature
The hostile takeover of the net neutrality bill isn’t the first time the California Legislature has obliterated a measure without an author’s consent.
But similar power plays by committee chairs in recent years often haven’t worked.
In 2015, Assembly Governmental Organization Committee Chairman Adam Gray (D-Merced) gutted a bill by then-state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that sought to regulate e-cigarettes like other tobacco products.
“I no longer believe in it, none of my sponsors believe in it,” Leno said as he angrily pulled his bill off the committee’s agenda. “I cannot support it any longer. I disassociate myself from it. It’s a very dangerous bill now.”
But months later, Leno had the last laugh.
Lawmakers used a special session on health care to bypass Gray’s committee, which has a reputation as one where industries wield great influence over members. Leno’s proposal was part of a package of anti-tobacco bills that became law despite fierce opposition — and even threats — from the tobacco industry.
One year later, as the Assembly Appropriations Committee churned through hundreds of bills on its suspense file, Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) paused when she came to a drug price transparency measure by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-Covina) opposed by the pharmaceutical industry.
“Sorry, it’s gonna take a minute,” she said, before rattling off amendments that changed the bill so much that Hernandez could not immediately say whether he still liked his own bill.
Hernandez tried again the following year – and this time, it became law.
A third example also comes from 2016, when then-Assembly Labor and Employment Committee chairman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina, and no relation to Sen. Hernandez) killed a bill by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) that would have expanded job-protected family leave to employees of small businesses.
That provoked a backlash because the bill was a top priority of the Legislature’s Women’s Caucus, which had recently called on Asm. Hernandez to take a leave of absence because his wife had accused him of domestic violence.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) later backed Jackson as she amended an unrelated bill to give her proposal a second chance. It passed the Legislature, and although Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed that year’s measure, he signed a similar one the year after.
The question now is whether AT&T, which worked behind the scenes on the hostile amendments to the net neutrality bill, will fare better than the tobacco or pharmaceutical industries.
Asked if Rendon would give Wiener’s net neutrality bill a second chance, as he did with Jackson’s bill, his office issued a statement that hinted at the speaker’s displeasure with how Wednesday’s events played out.
“Speaker Rendon has given committee chairs and members the leeway to do their jobs as they see best,” the statement said. “Sometimes that leads to conflict. Policymaking is about resolving those conflicts.”