California delays its net neutrality law while FCC’s new rules are challenged

California’s much-anticipated net neutrality rules, which were signed into law last month, are being put on ice until a challenge to the FCC’s own rules at the federal level is resolved. It’s unfortunate, but logical — if the FCC rules are undone or modified, the necessity and legality of California’s will also be affected.

As you likely remember, the FCC repealed 2015’s net neutrality rules at the end of 2017 and implemented a new, much weaker set that more or less puts broadband providers on the honor system when it comes to indiscriminate handling of your data in transit.

California responded by writing its own law establishing similar (and in some ways expanded) consumer protections. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who spearheaded the federal effort to overturn the old rules, was not amused; he called California’s rules “radical,” “anti-consumer,” “illegal” and “burdensome.”

So it was no surprise when, just hours after California governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law, the FCC filed a lawsuit challenging it.

But the FCC is dealing with a challenge of its own: a lawsuit from a dozen or so internet advocacy companies including Mozilla, Vimeo, Public Knowledge, Etsy and others, alleging all manner of procedural and factual problems with the new federal rules.

If this suit succeeds and the FCC’s new net neutrality rules are rolled back or substantially altered (for instance, the court may find that some section or another is illegal or unenforceable), this could bear on the basis for the agency’s own lawsuit against California. Yes, it’s a bit confusing, and that’s why the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, decided it might be best to wait and not litigate a suit that may be mooted a few months from now.

“We are committed to a free and open Internet for Californians,” AG Becerra said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Every step we take, every action we launch is intended to put us in the best position to preserve net neutrality for the 40 million people of our state. We are fighting the Trump Administration’s attempt to repeal net neutrality in the D.C. Circuit Court and we will vigorously defend California’s own net neutrality law.”

Senator Scott Wiener (D-CA) explained in a separate statement that he regrets but understands the necessity of this measure.

“Of course, I very much want to see California’s net neutrality law go into effect immediately, in order to protect access to the internet,” he said. “Yet, I also understand and support the Attorney General’s rationale for allowing the DC Circuit appeal to be resolved before we move forward to defend our net neutrality law in court. After the DC Circuit appeal is resolved, the litigation relating to California’s net neutrality law will then move forward.”

Ajit Pai also issued a statement on the matter, saying he was pleased California was staying implementation of “its onerous Internet regulations.”

“This substantial concession reflects the strength of the case made by the United States earlier this month,” he continued. “It also demonstrates, contrary to the claims of the law’s supporters, that there is no urgent problem that these regulations are needed to address.”

Although the rationale for this delay is understandable, it’s unfortunate that California residents will have to wait months or longer for the protections they supported while this case plays out.

(Updated with statement from California AG Becerra.)

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