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AT&T Trickery Helps Kill California’s Looming Net Neutrality Law

AT&T leaned heavily on California lawmakers, using procedural trickery and misleading studies to severely weaken and ultimately kill a once-promising state net neutrality law.
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AT&T has managed to derail a looming California net neutrality proposal groups like the EFF had called the “gold standard” for state-level net neutrality laws.

More than half the states in the country are now eyeing some form of state-level net neutrality laws after the FCC’s historically-unpopular decision to eliminate federal rules late last year. But Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 822 went even further than the discarded FCC rules by placing some important restrictions on how companies like AT&T can use their broadband dominance to anti-competitive advantage. The bill took specific aim at issues like zero rating, the practice of excluding an ISPs own content from usage caps while still penalizing rivals like Netflix. It also took aim at anti-competitive ISP behavior on the peering and interconnection front, which you might recall resulted in Netflix traffic grinding to a halt for many users a few years ago.


Fresh off its $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner, AT&T is full of plans to leverage its combined media and telecom power in the wake of the net neutrality repeal to competitive advantage. California’s proposal was a direct threat to those ambitions, so AT&T got quickly to work dismantling the proposal in a decidedly underhanded fashion. With an 8-0 vote, the California state Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee Wednesday morning adopted AT&T-pushed amendments to SB822, dramatically stripping the most important restrictions from the bill. Attendees tell Motherboard the amendments were rushed through before they could even be debated, much to AT&T’s benefit.

“There was no discussion of the amendments,” notes net neutrality activist and journalist Ryan Singel, fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. “Holding a vote before testimony is incredibly aggressive. That guts the bill and the way it was done was a slap in the face of the democratic process. It's exactly how Pai handled the 2017 net neutrality repeal.” Spearheading the rushed dismantling of the promising law was Committee Chair Miguel Santiago, a routine recipient of AT&T campaign contributions. Santiago’s office failed to respond to numerous requests for comment from Motherboard and numerous other media outlets.

In response to the vote, Wiener wound up shelving the bill entirely, arguing that the severely weakened version of the proposal failed to protect consumers from anti-competitive behavior. Needless to say, consumer advocates were decidedly unimpressed by AT&T’s successful procedural gambit.

"Forty million Californians just saw eight of their legislators eviscerate a crucial bill to protect a free and open internet,” lamented activist group Demand Progress in a statement. “Miguel Santiago—who has cemented his legacy as California’s version of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—and other committee members prioritized AT&T and Comcast’s greed and campaign cash above the urgent need for net neutrality rules, in a shocking display of contempt for the public process that stunned even longtime Capitol observers,” the group added. Santiago’s decision to hamstring the bill runs in stark contrast to Democratic hopes of using net neutrality as a campaign issue ahead of the midterm elections. Santiago ignored a polite warning from Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who reiterated the perils of letting “giant conglomerates use their communications pipes to tilt internet users toward the content, including news, they control.” California lawmakers apparently didn’t get the message. The forced vote on the Amendments passed 8-0, with 4 California Democrats joining 4 Republicans to weaken the law at direct AT&T behest. The company had some notable success using covertly-funded proxy groups to circulate a misleading study claiming that anti-competitive practices like zero rating were somehow a huge boon to California’s minorities.

“The level of corruption we just witnessed literally makes me sick to my stomach,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of net neutrality advocacy group Fight for the Future. “These California democrats will go down in history as among the worst corporate shills that have ever held elected office,” Greer argued. “Californians should rise up and demand that at their Assembly members represent them. The actions of this committee today are an attack not just on net neutrality, but on our democracy.”

Weiner told the San Francisco Chronicle that the AT&T fueled “evisceration” of his proposal was “decidedly unfair.” But that’s historically how AT&T, a company with an almost comical amount of control over state legislatures, tends to operate. The company has so much power in many states, it’s frequently allowed to quite literally write terrible state telecom law. It’s a continued reminder of the vice-like stranglehold companies like AT&T have over the political process, and how that results in policies that run in stark contrast to the will of the public.