What Is Net Neutrality? DoJ Is Suing California Over New Internet Law

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a lawsuit against California Sunday after the state's governor, Jerry Brown, signed a bill reinstating net neutrality into law.

The Obama-era legislation was dismantled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in June, but Brown moved to re-enact the rules at a state level. At its core, net neutrality forces internet providers to treat all data equally—and not give enhanced coverage for money.

But Trump-appointed attorney general Jeff Sessions claimed in a statement on Sunday that the move in California was "an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy."

The DoJ asserted the state law would impose burdens on "the federal government's deregulatory approach to the internet" and branded it "anti-consumer." It also said the legal change this year had fixed the "patchwork of state and local regulations" that existed previously. Trump-appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who spearheaded the repeal, said he was "pleased" with the lawsuit.

Net Neutrality
A woman holds a 'Save the Net' protest sign during a demonstration against the proposed repeal of net neutrality outside the Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, DC on December 13, 2017. California has now signed a bill reinstating net neutrality into law ALEX EDELMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The debate over net neutrality has raged for years. Critics of net neutrality say that it hampers businesses, while advocates claim it offers companies the legal backing to throttle web speeds, give preferential treatment to their own products online and block some content. U.S. companies, including AT&T and Verizon, have previously been accused of violating net neutrality.

The California law banned companies from blocking lawful content and prohibited zero-rating—which is when firms offer content exemptions from a data plan, often around video streaming. Engaging in "paid prioritization"—also known as "fast lanes"—would also be outlawed.

Senator Scott Wiener spoke out in favor of the law being brought back in California—just hours before the DoJ lawsuit was filed. He said: "While the Trump administration does everything in its power to undermine our democracy, we in California will continue to do what's right for our residents." He said the move "marked a true win for the internet and for an open society."

"Facts are on our side"

Government officials disagreed. "Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce—the federal government does," Sessions hit back. "We have a duty to defend the prerogatives of the federal government and protect our Constitutional order. We will do so with vigor. We are confident that we will prevail in this case—because the facts are on our side."

According to the Associated Press, Oregon, Washington and Vermont have also introduced net neutrality rules, but California's law was the most comprehensive version brought into play.

"I'm pleased the Department of Justice has filed this suit," FCC chairman Pai said in a statement on Sunday. "The internet is inherently an interstate information service.

"Not only is California's internet regulation law illegal, it also hurts consumers. The law prohibits many free-data plans, which allow consumers to stream video, music, and the like exempt from any data limits. They have proven enormously popular in the marketplace."

The net neutrality law was scheduled to take effect on January 1 next year, Reuters reported.

net neutrality
A small group of protestors supporting net neutrality protest against a plan by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head Ajit Pai, during a protest outside a Verizon store on December 7, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images