Sometimes states operate against stereotype, and this legislative session is no exception. In contrast to a forward-thinking bill put forward in West Virginia earlier this year, which would have forward explicitly granted authority over high speed broadband Internet services, it seems the typically consumer-friendly and technologically savvy California legislature is considering moving in the opposite direction, taking up a policy proposed by the ultra-right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and that ALEC endorsed when it was under consideration in New York State.
California Senator Alex Padilla, Chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, is sponsoring SB 1161, which is also cosponsored by Assemblymember Steven C. Bradford, chair of the Utilities and Commerce Committee. The aim of the legislation is simple: to prohibit any state agency from regulating any Internet Protocol service. In other words, just as most Americans are moving to new technologies, the state might pull out the rug on any rules to protect consumers who use it.
This is a sweeping preemptive strike against consumers and small businesses because it renders the state powerless with respect to a technology that virtually everyone relies on today, and it is occurring at the same time many states are removing protections for traditional telephone service as well. As Progressive States Network laid out in its Blueprint for Economic Security 2012, high speed broadband Internet is an important key to create jobs and stimulate economic recovery because essential communications service for everyone from elementary students to small businesses.
The New York proposal was successfully defeated by a determined coalition of labor, consumer and other advocates. While Governor Andrew Cuomo originally proposed such a prohibition on his state utility commission as part of his budget, public interest advocates as diverse as the Communications Workers of America and AARP celebrated Cuomo’s decision not to prohibit state agencies from assisting consumers with broadband regulation.
California’s venerable consumer advocate, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), has written to Sen. Padilla opposing his bill, identifying a long list of protections that will be eliminated if it were to become law. TURN’s Executive Director, Mark Toney, calls SB1161 “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and explains it will have implications far beyond services like Skype because all modern telephone, and even cable services, use Internet Protocol. This bill is something of a change in course for the Senator, since Sen. Padilla has been the source of some good bills in the past. Padilla authored the law that established the California Broadband Council, and recently introduced a bill to prohibit localities from shutting down telecommunications services as San Francisco’s BART system did last year, an action that was widely criticized by the telecommunications and civil rights communities.
SB 1161 comes on the heels of a recommendation by California’s Greenlining Institute that states should be going in the opposite direction, recommending that states adopt legislation to ensure more transparency with high speed Internet, requiring Internet companies to “disclose what types of Internet traffic they discriminate against and to what extent that traffic is blocked or delayed, and why.”
Despite an increasing list of opponents in the public interest community, SB 1161 has moved steadily forward over the past few months. It was voted out of the California Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee unanimously and passed the full Senate by a vote of 30-6 this spring. The bill has since passed one committee in the state Assembly by a vote of 13-1, with the sole opposition coming from Assemblymember Jared Huffman, also a candidate for U.S. Congress in California’s 2nd District. The bill is currently before the Assembly appropriations committee, which has no scheduled hearings until August.
Sadly, California is not alone. A number of other states have also considered or passed similar legislation over the past two years. But fortunately, as advocates and others in many states have worked to identify the dangers in these bills, the likelihood of their passage has slowed down. Kentucky, New York, and New Jersey have fought off similar measures, bills in Connecticut and Colorado have stalled out, and some states, like Maine, took a more reasonable approach last year, soliciting a detailed analysis from its utility commission.
As public outcry against the ALEC-backed effort in California continues, the voices of those opposed to this misguided rollback of consumer protections will hopefully have more time to be heard as well.
Cheryl A. Leanza has 17 years of media policy advocacy experience, including several years at the Federal Communications Commission and over six years at the non-profit law firm Media Access Project.