The U.S. Department of Justice has dropped its Trump-era lawsuit against California enacting its own net neutrality rules.
The news, spotted by Ars Technica, means the federal government is letting the state do what it wants when it comes to net neutrality, which is in line with the Biden Administration’s promise to reinstate the laws at the federal level. Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that she is “pleased” by the turn of events.
The California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act was signed into law on Sept. 30, 2018, in response to the FCC’s move to repeal net neutrality. Designed to fill the void left by the Ajit Pai-led FCC, the law prevents internet service providers from: blocking and slowing lawful traffic; paid prioritization of service; getting paid for zero-rating some content in a category, but not all content in that category (looking at you, AT&T); and not being transparent about network management practices, performance, and commercial terms.
Hours after the law went into effect, the Trump-era DOJ filed a lawsuit against California, claiming that states have no jurisdiction over the Internet. As a result, California agreed to not enforce the law in exchange for the DOJ not moving ahead with the lawsuit. In August of last year, the Trump administration resumed its lawsuit against California, but the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC could not force individual states to uphold the net neutrality repeal—although it did say the FCC could repeal its own net neutrality rules, sadly. The court upheld the claim that broadband isn’t a telecommunications service, somehow unconvinced by the millions of people working and attending school from home due to the covid-19 pandemic.
Now that the lawsuit has been formally dismissed, however, this leaves California in a position to actually enforce the law it passed over two years ago.
But there’s another roadblock: the ISPs. Several major lobby groups representing some of the largest telecoms in the US—Comcast, Charter, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Cox, Frontier, and CenturyLink—filed a separate lawsuit against the state in October 2018 calling the act an example of “unconstitutional state regulation” and that it undermined federal law. The lobby groups amended their lawsuit in August last year.
It’s unclear what or how much legal precedence this argument still holds, considering the DOJ has now formally withdrawn its lawsuit against California. And with Rosenworcel currently at the helm of the FCC, it’s entirely possible net neutrality will be reinstated. All that combined would seem to render the broadband lobbyists’ argument moot. However, President Biden would need to nominate a new Democratic commissioner and have that nomination approved by the Senate to break the 2-2 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in the FCC.