WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Tuesday cleared the way for California to enforce its net neutrality law, denying a request by telecommunications providers to delay state rules meant to ensure equal access to internet content.
Judge John Mendez of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California denied a motion for preliminary injunction brought by the group of internet service providers that had sued to stop the 2018 state law from going into effect.
Net neutrality is the notion that all internet content should be accessible to consumers and that broadband providers cannot block or degrade content, particularly sites and services that compete against their own services.
California’s law was created after the Trump-era Federal Communications Commission in 2017 rolled back its federal net neutrality regulation. The Justice Department immediately sued the state to overturn its law. Broadband providers, through their trade groups, followed with a request for a preliminary injunction to stop the California law while the lawsuit wound its way through the courts.
The trade groups suing the state said in a joint statement that they were reviewing the court decision and deliberating next steps. But they argued against state laws that create a patchwork of regulations for broadband providers.
“A state-by-state approach to internet regulation will confuse consumers and deter innovation, just as the importance of broadband for all has never been more apparent,” the groups said.
The court’s ruling clears the way for California to enact its law, a move that is expected to be replicated by other states in the absence of a federal rule. Washington, Vermont and Oregon are among a handful of states that also enacted laws after the federal rollback of the rules.
“We applaud the court for affirming that California has the power to protect access to the internet,” California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, said in a statement. “The ability of an internet service provider to block, slow down or speed up content based on a user’s ability to pay for service degrades the very idea of a competitive marketplace and the open transfer of information at the core of our increasingly digital and connected world.”
The Biden administration is expected to support the reinstatement of federal net neutrality rules. One month into the new administration, the Justice Department dropped its lawsuit against California’s law, leaving just the telecommunications industry’s request for a preliminary injunction as the last hurdle for the law to go into effect.
Scott Wiener, the California state senator who wrote the law, called the decision a victory. “The internet is at the heart of modern life. We all should be able to decide for ourselves where we go on the internet and how we access information. We cannot allow big corporations to make those decisions for us,” he said.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who is the acting F.C.C. chairwoman, fiercely opposed the agency’s decision in 2017 to scrap net neutrality regulations. She has not announced plans to reinstate federal rules. Her focus has been on a mandate by Congress to bridge the digital divide for broadband access to low-income Americans.
“When the F.C.C., over my objection, rolled back its #netneutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws,” she said in a tweet. “Tonight a court in California decided that the state law can go into effect. This is big news for #openinternet policy.”