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As California’s Net Neutrality Bill Becomes Law, Justice Department Sues to Stop It

WASHINGTON — California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the the country’s strongest net neutrality bill protections, a move that will be met by a legal challenge from the Trump administration.

The Justice Department announced on Sunday that it filed a lawsuit against the state for passing the law, arguing that only the federal government can dictate such a sweeping framework for how ISPs like Comcast and AT&T provide internet service.

“Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce — the federal government does,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy. The Justice Department should not have to spend valuable time and resources to file this suit today, but we have a duty to defend the prerogatives of the federal government and protect our Constitutional order.”

The Washington Post first reported that the Justice Department was preparing to file a lawsuit.

The California law prohibits internet providers in the state from blocking or throttling traffic, or from selling speedier access to consumers.

The law was passed in response to the Republican-led FCC’s move in December to repeal most of their net neutrality rules, on the rationale that the regulations were stifling investment. That action led to a backlash in a number of states, which have sought to pass their own rules of the road for internet service.

California’s new law goes farther than even the old FCC rules did in placing restrictions on internet service providers. It prohibits ISPs from charging access fees to websites to connect to their customers, and it bans certain types of “zero rating” offerings. The latter are practices in which companies like AT&T and Verizon offer plans that do not count affiliated content against data caps.

In rolling back net neutrality in December, the FCC also prohibited states from passing their own rules, as it would create a patchwork of laws throughout the country. Oregon, Vermont and Washington have passed net neutrality legislation, but California is the largest.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who championed the repeal of the agency’s rules, said in a statement that the internet is “an interstate information service” and “as such, only the federal government can set policy in this area.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat who authored the legislation, said that this was “a historic day in California. A free and open internet is the cornerstone of 21st century life: our democracy, our economy, our healthcare and public safety systems, and day-to-day activities. While the Trump Administration does everything in its power to undermine our democracy, we in California will continue to do what’s right for our residents.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is challenging the FCC’s repeal in court along with other state attorneys general, said that “while the Trump Administration continues to ignore the millions of Americans who voiced strong support for net neutrality rules, California, home to countless start-ups, tech giants and nearly 40 million consumers, will not allow a handful of power brokers to dictate sources for information or the speed at which websites load. We remain deeply committed to protecting freedom of expression, innovation and fairness.”

Pai argued that the California legislation will hurt consumers, noting that it will prohibit “many free-data plans, which allow consumers to stream video, music, and the like exempt from any data limits.

“They have proven enormously popular in the marketplace, especially among lower-income Americans.  But notwithstanding the consumer benefits, this state law bans them,” he said.

The DOJ is asking for an injunction to block enforcement of the law, arguing that it is preempted by federal law and is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.

Democrats have seized on net neutrality as a midterm campaign issue, hoping that the backlash against the FCC’s repeal of the rules will galvanize younger voters.

The Writers Guild of America West released a statement Sunday in support of the net neutrality law.

“We applaud Governor Brown and the California Legislature for once again proving that if our federal government fails to protect its citizens, California will step in and lead the way,” the statement reads. “Once enacted, this landmark net neutrality legislation will serve as a model for states nationwide to follow. The Internet today is where we connect, where we organize and speak freely, and where we can choose what content we consume. With increasing attacks on our First Amendment rights and widespread corporate concentration, preserving an open Internet free from ISP interference is more important now than ever.”

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