Assembly member Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) at podium with State Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), right, in Los Angeles Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.
Photo: AP

Efforts in California to pass a comprehensive net neutrality law hit a snag on Tuesday after a key committee, which is chaired by a Democrat whose coffers are flush with telecom industry cash, suddenly threw a wrench in the works.

Two California state lawmakers struck a deal on Monday to combine two net neutrality bills introduced separately this year—SB 822 and SB 460—both of which have cleared the state’s Senate. Working in tandem, the bills would ensure that Californians have the same level of protection against net neutrality violators as granted under the 2015 Open Internet Order, which established the federal net neutrality rules officially repeal by the Trump administration one week ago.

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Instead of accepting amendments to combine SB 822 and SB 460, however, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, chair of the Communications and Conveyance Committee, is likely to propose his own, according to a source with direct knowledge of the negotiation. Santiago, the source said, intends to substantially diminish the end legislation’s effectiveness, leaving enormous loopholes for internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T and Comcast to exploit.

The plan to unify the two bills was announced Monday by State Senators Scott Wiener and Kevin de León, the authors of SB 822 and SB 460, respectively. The decision was widely praised by, among others, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and Initialized Capital. Federal lawmakers, too, have weighed in on the legislation, believing that the California bill will set the bar for any other state-level net neutrality laws to come, as well as boost efforts to reject the new Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) rules in the House of Representatives.

The passage of a toothless net neutrality bill in the liberal haven that is California’s legislature would serve as a humiliating moment for the Democratic Party.

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“We will not settle for the weak bills pushed by Republicans that eliminate crucial consumer protections and are net neutrality in name only,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote Monday in a letter to Santiago. Senator Edward Markey, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, tweeted Tuesday that major internet providers were working hard to weaken any future California law, adding: “everyone is watching.”

The telecom industry is, in fact, working hard to disrupt the passage of California’s net neutrality legislation—in particular, SB 822, a bill which mirrors not only the handful of pages that make up the underlying rules of the 2015 Open Internet Order, but the 300-pages worth of explanations contained in the order itself.

While the rules alone prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling internet traffic, or creating so-called “fast” and “slow lanes,” the full order explains at length the reasons the rules exist and how they should be applied, codifying a number of protections that aren’t explicitly laid out in the rules’ simple text.

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The rules do not, for example, address the unreasonable fees ISPs may impose on application and content providers in order to reach end users—i.e., access fees—which the order defines as a form of blocking. Nor do they address ISPs congesting interconnection points to force payments from providers managing traffic along the internet’s “backbone.” Nor do the rules address “zero rating,” a practice whereby ISPs get to pick and choose which websites and services consumers can use without impacting their data limits.

The bill authored by de LeĂłn, SB 460, did not include these additional protections; however, it would if it is successfully combined with SB 822. Instead, if amended to be conjoined with SB 822, SB 460 would focus on ensuring that net neutrality violators are prohibited from entering into public contracts, a practice which is being adopted via executive power in handful of other states, including New York.

Senate lawmakers had expected Santiago’s committee to release a report Tuesday morning endorsing the amendments to combine the two bills. But that didn’t happen. Now the authors are convinced that Santiago is likely to propose amendments of his own which neglect the 2015 order’s broader explanations—leaving ISPs loopholes through which they can charge businesses and content providers exorbitant fees.

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The telecom industry, and AT&T in particular, have been applying enormous pressure to California lawmakers in an effort to defeat SB 822. One of the industry’s prime targets remains Santiago, to whom major ISPs have contributed more than $29,000 this election cycle, according to campaign finance records, including $7,800 from AT&T and its affiliates.

AT&T has papered the California legislature with flyers denouncing SB 822 as an “unwarranted attack on an industry that invests billions in infrastructure in California,” though the provisions it seeks cut are largely designed merely to prohibit “unreasonable fees.” An “advocacy” group supported by AT&T, known as CALInnovates, has also targeted California residents with social media ads bashing SB 822. Many of the ads include the online handles of Democrats on the state’s Communications and Conveyance Committee.

Santiago’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a press release, digital-rights group Demand Progress called on Santiago to reject the whispers of his supposed plan to kill the Wiener and de León amendments. “Assemblymember Santiago must put an end to rumors that he is acting on behalf of AT&T and other giant ISPs by attempting to sink the strongest net neutrality protections to be considered by a state, or he will quickly become known as California’s Chairman Pai,” the group’s communications director, Mark Stanley, said in a statement.

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Despite Santiago’s expected rejection of a unified bill, the two authors will have the opportunity to reintroduce the amendments before Santiago’s committee Wednesday morning. The Communications and Conveyance Committee hearing is slated for at 9:30am PST.

Whatever happens, Californians will find out tomorrow whose side Santiago is really on.