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California Net Neutrality Measure Advances, As Firefighters Complain Of Throttling

Jessica Paterson / Flickr

Jessica Paterson / Flickr

An effort by California lawmakers to impose net neutrality in lieu of the federal government passed a key vote Wednesday, two days after firefighters blamed a lack of internet protections for hurting their attempts to extinguish the state’s largest wildfire.

This week fire officials from Santa Clara County revealed in a legal filing that Verizon restricted their data usage while they responded to the Mendocino Complex fires.

The incident came up during debate on the state bill in an Assembly committee. Verizon lobbyist Heidi Barsuglia called her company’s treatment of the firefighters’ data “troubling,” but unrelated to net neutrality, which is commonly discussed as regulation designed to bar internet providers from promoting one company's web traffic over others.

In this instance, it was a consumer — the fire agency — that experienced a slowdown in all web traffic.

But Santa Clara County’s fire chief disagrees about the distinction, adding his testimony to a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s repeal of net neutrality rules. In a legal filing on Monday, fire chief Anthony Bowden describes how county firefighters had trouble coordinating when their internet data slowed to a fraction of its usual speed as they fought the Mendocino Complex Fire — now the largest fire ever recorded in California.

“This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” Bowden’s testimony reads. “Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire's ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

A series of emails included with the legal filing show a month-long back-and-forth as the fire department looked to restore internet and Verizon looked to upsell them on a more expensive plan. Verizon contends that although the department purchased what is classified as an “unlimited” plan, it will slow that data — known as “throttling” — once a certain amount is used.

Nevertheless, Verizon has called the incident a customer service error, as the slowdown occurred during an emergency.

Proponents of the California measure also argue that net neutrality rules would give the firefighters more recourse.

“Net neutrality is actually a lot broader than just protecting businesses,” says Barbara van Schewick, director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “If it had been in effect, the Santa Clara Fire Department would have an avenue to ask for help in resolving this problem.”

Van Schewick says the federal rules, repealed in June, allowed consumers to complain about deceptive practices and gave federal regulators wide latitude to investigate malfeasance. The California measure would allow the state Attorney General to take up that role.

The committee, which had previously gutted the bill against the author’s wish, this time passed the measure. It now heads to the full Assembly for a vote.

Read the Santa Clara Fire Department's testimony:

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