A telecommunications industry suit seeking to block enforcement of California's new net neutrality law represents an attempt by power brokers to maintain a chokehold "on the public's access to online content," state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Wednesday.
The lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento was filed just days after a Justice Department claim in the same venue arguing that the state overstepped its authority by barring Internet service providers from adjusting transmission speeds based on content.
California's law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday, re-enacts nationwide rules implemented by the Federal Communications Commission under former President Barack Obama and repealed under President Trump. In a 3-2 vote on the action late last year, current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, said he was acting to restore successful "light-touch regulation" that encouraged investment in broadband services.
The move was opposed by a range of companies that depend on unfettered data access to digital services and feared broadband providers might discriminate against certain websites. The Internet Association lobbying group, which represents companies like Netflix that fought the FCC decision, would benefit from the action in California, whose large population and Silicon Valley industrial base heighten the impact of its policies.
"California, the country’s economic engine, has the right to exercise its sovereign powers under the Constitution and we will do everything we can to protect the right of our 40 million consumers to access information by defending a free and open Internet," Becerra, who as attorney general is responsible for defending the law, said in a statement.
"While the Trump administration continues to ignore the millions of Americans who voiced strong support for net neutrality rules," the state "will not allow a handful of power brokers to dictate sources for information or the speed at which websites load," he said.
Nonetheless, organizations such as the American Cable Association, CTIA, the Internet and Television Association and USTelecom — which filed Wednesday's lawsuit — see the measure as unconstitutional. They argued that it's "intended to countermand and undermine federal law."
U.S. broadband providers are "the innovation engine of America’s digital economy," the groups said in a statement. "We oppose California’s action to regulate Internet access because it threatens to negatively affect services for millions of consumers and harm new investment and economic growth."
Among other things, the law prohibits pricing plans that exempt preferred Internet traffic from a user's data allowance, effectively providing free access, while charging for the remainder. That provision, Pai said, harms lower-income users who might want to take advantage of so-called "zero rating" options that allow streaming of video and music without limits.
Both the broadband groups and the U.S. Justice Department argue that the Constitution empowers the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, and that a decades-old law specifically gives Congress, not states, the power to regulate communication across state lines.
An argument that California's law applies only to activity within its borders ignores the reality that Internet service providers "generally cannot comply with state or local rules for intrastate communications without applying the same rules to interstate communications," the Justice Department said in its lawsuit.
"Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday. "The Justice Department should not have to spend valuable time and resources to file this suit today, but we have a duty to defend the prerogatives of the federal government and protect our Constitutional order. We will do so with vigor."