California Legislation Would Eliminate Consumer Protection for Internet Services

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 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 that was endorsed by the ultra-right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) 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."

The bill is up for a hearing on April 17 before the California Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee


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