Justice Department sues as California passes net neutrality law

The Net Neutrality battle is back on the front pages in the USA after the Department of Justice sued the State of California on the same day the state’s Governor, Jerry Brown, signed their own powerful net neutrality rules into law.

Readers will recall that back in December last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by former Verizon employee Ajit Pai, repealed the country’s net neutrality laws which ensured that all internet data had to be treated equally by ISPs such as Verizon.

Critics argue that the move will enable ISPs to make huge profits by charging websites for fast access to their content while throttling speeds to rival sites. There have been few voices outside the ISPs or the Republican Party who have found any merit in the rollback, which formally came into force on April 23rd.

California’s robust new Net Neutrality legislation

It wasn’t long before individual US states began to raise the prospect of introducing their own net neutrality laws at state level to protect their citizens from the adverse effects the FCC’s decision could have on their internet access.

The FCC has argued that state laws couldn’t trump federal ones, but that hasn’t stopped many states pressing ahead. California has been at the forefront of this new push and on 30th September, Governor Jerry Brown signed their new protections into law.

Based on the original net neutrality laws put in place under the Obama administration, the new California laws outlaw ISPs from slowing connections to certain websites and from charging other sites for faster connections.

But it goes even further too. In California, it is now also illegal to use zero-rating offers, which some ISPs use to exempt certain websites from a user’s data cap. And it also applies net neutrality rules to ‘interconnection’ deal too. That means when Netflix passes your stream into your ISP it is still protected.

The new laws were actually approved by the California Assembly back in early September and there were some concerns over the delay in the sign off from the Governor. But faced with a deadline of the end of September, he went ahead and the move has been widely welcomed by internet users and online rights activists.

Justice Department fightback beckons in a long legal tussle

Inevitably, the decision was not welcomed by the Department of Justice, Ajit Pai, or the ISPs themselves. On the very same day as the new laws were signed off, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of California arguing that state legislators are trying to “subvert the Federal Government’s deregulatory approach.”

Controversial US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions issued a statement claiming that “under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce — the federal government does”.

Ajit Pai gave his inevitable backing to the lawsuit too, stating, “The internet is inherently an interstate information service… As such, only the federal government can set policy in this area.”

But campaign group Fight for the Future, which has supported California’s net neutrality laws, countered this by claiming that states had no choice but to act as the FCC had abdicated its authority for overseeing the internet.

“Ultimately the FCC can’t have it both ways. If they refuse to do their job providing basic oversight for ISPs, then they can’t legally prevent the states from doing their job for them,” said Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer.

Lawmakers in California also seem confident that they will win the forthcoming legal battle.

State Senator Scott Wiener, who authored the new laws, was defiant, stating that, “We’ve been down this road before… California fought Trump and Sessions on their immigration lawsuit — California won — and California will fight this lawsuit as well.”

More states to follow California’s lead

Whatever the outcome of this lawsuit, it looks likely to be the first of many between states and the federal government.

There are currently no fewer than 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, which have filed appeals against the FCC decision to undo net neutrality. Many of these states have also discussed or are in the process of passing their own net neutrality laws similar to those in California.

In addition, a number of tech companies including Mozilla, and various trade groups have also filed arguments.

The various rounds of lawsuits and appeals are likely to drag on for years and there are some who doubt that the courts will ever be able to make a decisive decision one way or the other.

Caught in the middle of all this are the innocent US internet users themselves. All most of them want is free and open internet access, but in the US that is becoming harder and harder to enjoy.

It is no surprise that the net neutrality rollback has seen a significant spike in US subscribers to VPNs. By using a VPN, US internet users can redirect their traffic down an encrypted pathway and through an overseas server in a country where net neutrality is still enshrined in law.

By doing this, they can continue to enjoy unrestricted internet access, while also benefiting from the various other security and privacy benefits of using a VPN. For the time being at least, they can also connect to a Californian server too!

Top VPNs such as ExpressVPN and IPVanish have seen a sizable growth in US subscribers over the past twelve months and this pattern is likely to continue as the legal tussle over net neutrality rumbles on.

To find out more about which VPN to use to protect your net neutrality, take a look at our article on the Best VPN for Net Neutrality Our Top 5 Choices.

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