California can start enforcing the net neutrality law it enacted over two years ago, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in a loss for internet service providers.
The broadband-industry lobby groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction was denied by Judge John Mendez of US District Court for the Eastern District of California. Mendez did not issue a written order but announced his ruling at a hearing, and his denial of the ISPs’ motion was noted in the docket.
Mendez reportedly was not swayed by the ISPs’ claims that a net neutrality law isn’t necessary because they haven’t been blocking or throttling internet traffic.
“I have heard that argument and I don’t find it persuasive,” Mendez said, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s going to fall on deaf ears. Everyone has been on their best behavior since 2018, waiting for whatever happened in the DC Circuit [court case over the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality]. I don’t place weight on the argument that everything is fine and we don’t need to worry.”
Mendez, who was nominated by President Bush in 2008, also said, “This decision today is a legal decision and shouldn’t be viewed in the political lens. I’m not expressing anything on the soundness of the policy. That might better be resolved by Congress than by federal courts.”
The industry lobby groups’ lawsuit against California will continue, but the state can enforce its law while the case is still pending. California attorney general Xavier Becerra praised the ruling, saying it means that “California can soon begin enforcement of SB 822,” the net neutrality law.
“The ability of an internet service provider to block, slow down, or speed up content based on a user’s ability to pay for service degrades the very idea of a competitive marketplace and the open transfer of information at the core of our increasingly digital and connected world,” Becerra said.
The lawsuit against California was filed by the major broadband-industry lobby groups representing wired and mobile internet providers. Those groups are the American Cable Association, CTIA-The Wireless Association, NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, and USTelecom.
“Today’s federal court ruling allowing California to enforce our net neutrality law is a huge victory for open access to the internet, our democracy, and our economy,” said state senator Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco), who introduced California’s net neutrality legislation. “The internet is at the heart of modern life. We all should be able to decide for ourselves where we go on the internet and how we access information. We cannot allow big corporations to make those decisions for us.”
California’s net neutrality law was also challenged by the Trump administration’s Department of Justice. President Biden’s DOJ voluntarily dropped the lawsuit, leaving the broadband-industry case as the remaining legal obstacle for California.
When the industry and DOJ filed their lawsuits in 2018, California agreed to suspend enforcement of the state law until the end of litigation over actions against net neutrality regulation from then-Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai. Pai’s repeal of FCC net neutrality rules was subsequently upheld, but he lost his attempt to preempt all state laws.
Despite the FCC’s loss on preemption, the Trump administration and broadband industry resumed their fight against California, claiming the state law couldn’t be enforced, because the FCC has “exclusive responsibility” for regulating interstate communications, and “internet communications are inherently interstate.” After the Biden administration dropped the US lawsuit against California, the state said that “the United States’ voluntary dismissal of its lawsuit underscores Defendant’s arguments that SB 822 is not preempted.”
The California law prohibits internet service providers from blocking or throttling lawful traffic. It also prohibits requiring fees from websites or online services to deliver or prioritize their traffic to consumers, bans paid data cap exemptions (so-called “zero-rating”), and says that ISPs may not attempt to evade net neutrality protections by slowing down traffic at network interconnection points.