Opinion

The Golden Mistake

It is often said that “as California goes, so goes the nation.” For decades this maxim has held true for the state I called home for 15 years. The statement has rung true from social justice and civil rights to the transformation of our economy and society in the digital age. But if recent action taken by California Gov. Jerry Brown is any indication, the Golden State has made a golden mistake — one that steers our nation toward a far from sunny destination in a connected, global world.

The governor recently signed into law the most regressive and anti-consumer version of net neutrality legislation in the country, creating a confusing patchwork of conflicting requirements that has undercut California’s emeritus status as the crown jewel of the global information economy. The move undermines and overshadows an ironclad commitment to ensuring all Americans everywhere continue to enjoy our open, free and dynamic internet.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the law the very same day, citing that it “unlawfully imposes burdens on the Federal Government’s deregulatory approach to the internet.” Rather than sign this legislative Frankenstein, the wise course of action would have been to veto it.

Which is why, along with other broadband organizations, we not only support the DOJ’s action, but have also filed a joint lawsuit in federal court challenging the bill as signed. Regulating internet access state-by-state threatens to negatively affect services for millions of consumers and harm new investment and economic growth.

Our opposition is rooted in federal precedent, with both Republican and Democratic administrations having embraced the notion that actions like this are preempted by federal law. We believe the courts will continue to uphold that fundamental principle.

Putting down the soundbite stun guns for a moment and looking at the underlying facts: no side in this debate opposes clear, enforceable net neutrality protections for consumers.  Indeed, internet service providers have long embraced and practiced the “holy trinity” of net neutrality — no blocking, throttling or unfair prioritization of online traffic. Federal regulators have been utterly consistent in affirming their authority and determination to act against any internet service provider that breaches this compact with consumers. And, real-world headlines relating to blocking and neutrality concerns are garnered almost exclusively by companies not covered by this bill.

As such, this deeply politicized legislation, as signed, is selling a false bill of goods.

First, it’s dubious whether state boundaries can be imposed on a global network. When a single webpage loads on a device in California, it can bring with it bits and bytes of content from dozens of computers located around the world. Separating out this traffic would be impossible.

Second, California’s net neutrality legislation doesn’t just reinstate anti-consumer rules. It goes further, blocking consumer access to no-cost — known as “zero rating” — service offerings. This puts two essential national objectives — open internet protections and universal access to broadband’s opportunities — at odds. Particularly for low-income Americans, lawmakers blocking access to free data and other wallet-friendly consumer choices is a highly regressive call.

Third, it leaves out today’s most dominant online players — such as Facebook, Amazon and Google — precisely those companies making headlines for their treatment of consumer data. Policymakers at all levels of government are right to be vigilant on behalf of their constituents. Yet nothing could be more counterproductive to everyone’s interests than 50 states — no matter how well-meaning — each writing their own set of rules for how the global internet should operate within their borders.

Consumers and innovators alike deserve one set of protections and rules of the road, whether they live in California or anywhere else in our country. And, all consumers should enjoy these basic protections whether we are engaging with Facebook or Comcast, AT&T or Amazon.

The solution to net neutrality is a permanent, even-handed and bipartisan federal approach driven by Congress that applies to all internet players — core, edge and platform alike.

California has always been a leader, but its governor has taken a step backwards, putting into question the truly progressive values of the state. A potential 50-state Rubik’s Cube of internet rules overcomplicates everything that has driven our nation — and California — to lead the global innovation economy. Like other core principles of our society, an open internet is vital to all Americans. We should fight to safeguard it as one, connected nation.

Jonathan Spalter is the president and CEO of USTelecom, a telecommunications industry trade association representing broadband service providers, manufacturers and suppliers in the world of internet-based communications and entertainment.

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