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Net Neutrality on Pause: California Agrees Not to Enforce New Rules as States Fight FCC in Court

The Department of Justice and internet service provider trade associations, which sued the state for enacting a law that sets different ground rules for internet protections in California, have also agreed to put that lawsuit on hold until 2019.

By Melia Russell

California agreed Friday not to enforce its new net neutrality rules -- the toughest state-level internet protections in the nation -- while court deliberations continue over the federal government's underlying rollback of net neutrality.

The Department of Justice and internet service provider trade associations, which sued the state for enacting a law that sets different ground rules for internet protections in California,  have also agreed to put that lawsuit on hold until 2019.

Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed a bill that in effect restored net neutrality rules put in place in 2015 under the Obama administration and overturned by an order of the Federal Communications Commissions in December. The state law, which had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, would ban internet service providers (like Comcast or Verizon) from giving certain websites or apps special treatment, such as speeding up downloads of video services that pay the provider additional fees.

Within minutes of Brown signing SB822, the Justice Department sued to undo it, arguing that states do not regulate interstate commerce, rather, the federal government does.

"Once again the California Legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the suit.

More than 20 states' attorneys general along with public interest groups and private businesses filed a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission for removing earlier net neutrality rules. Arguments in that case are scheduled to begin Feb. 1.

"Of course, I very much want to see California's net neutrality law go into effect immediately, in order to protect access to the internet," state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who carried the net neutrality legislation in Sacramento, said in a statement. "Yet, I also understand and support the attorney general's rationale for allowing the D.C. Circuit appeal to be resolved before we move forward to defend our net neutrality law in court."

A U.S. district judge approved the agreement between California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the parties suing the state Friday.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement that the pact "reflects the strength of the case made by the United States" in its suit. He suggested that California has seen since June, when the FCC's order overturning net neutrality went into effect, that the order has not created an "urgent problem" that the state law needs to address.

"Indeed, California's agreement not to enforce these regulations will allow Californians to continue to enjoy free-data plans that have proven to be popular among consumers," Pai said.

In December, the FCC said it would share the responsibility of investigating and taking enforcement action against "bad actor" internet service providers with the Federal Trade Commission, which had some oversight prior to 2015.

San Diego State University lecturer Steven Andres pointed out the irony of the agency that relinquished control over internet protections now arguing that California has overextended its authority.

"Here they are saying, 'If California is taking it up, we definitely want to deal with net neutrality,'" Andres said.

(c)2018 the San Francisco Chronicle

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