The Department of Justice has backed away from a Trump administration lawsuit against California for passing net neutrality rules. It’s the opening salvo in what is expected to be a stark reversal from Trump era policies friendly to major US telecom monopolies.
The DOJ on Monday formally dismissed the lawsuit, first filed in 2018 under former Trump U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The law still faces a legal challenge from the broadband industry, the next hearing for which is scheduled for February 23. Should California prevail, the state will have its own net neutrality law that in some cases goes even further than the FCC rules the law was intended to replace.
The DOJ’s retreat was applauded by new Biden FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel, who is widely expected to fully restore the federal rules.
“I am pleased that the Department of Justice has withdrawn this lawsuit,” Rosenworcel said.
“When the FCC, over my objection, rolled back its net neutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws,” she noted. “By taking this step, Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land.”
The FCC’s 2015 rules prevented ISPs from exploiting their regional monopolies to harm competitors and consumers. ISPs had spent years toying with blocking customers from being able to access internet voice services like Vonage, video apps like Skype, digital payment services like Google Wallet, or other services that compete with an ISP’s own offerings.
ISPs have also given themselves an unfair advantage in the streaming video wars by applying arbitrary and unnecessary broadband caps and overage fees when their broadband customers use competitors like Netflix, but not when a consumer uses an ISP’s own streaming service.
But net neutrality first gained widespread attention when Comcast was caught covertly throttling BitTorrent without informing users. As a result, the rules also required that ISPs be transparent about how they’re managing their networks, allowing consumers to better understand the kind of broadband connections they’re buying.
Surveys repeatedly found the rules enjoyed the bipartisan approval of a vast majority of Americans.
But the Trump FCC dismantled the rules anyway, falsely claiming they had stifled US network investment, and that restoring them would reverse the trend. Numerous studies, earnings reports, and executive statements have repeatedly proven both claims to be false.
While less talked about, the Trump FCC’s “restoring internet freedom” order went several steps beyond killing net neutrality.
The repeal dramatically curtailed the FCC’s authority over telecom monopolies, making it more difficult to police billing fraud. The repeal even attempted to ban states from protecting consumers, an effort later shot down by the courts, who noted the FCC couldn’t give up its consumer protection authority only to turn around and dictate state policy.
In response to federal apathy to its consumer protection responsibilities, numerous states like California, Maine, and Washington stepped in to pass their own state level protections, a major reason why ISP behavior wasn’t worse in the wake of the federal repeal.
When ISPs like Comcast and AT&T failed to derail California’s proposed law using procedural gamesmanship, the Trump DOJ quickly stepped in to help, filing suit against California in 2018 for what it claimed at the time was an “extreme and illegal” effort to protect US consumers.
Last month, California Representative Anna Eshoo and twelve other lawmakers sent a letter to the Biden DOJ, asking it to reverse course and drop the lawsuit.
“In January, my California colleagues and I asked the DOJ to withdraw from the Trump Administration lawsuit against California’slaw,” Eshoo said on Twitter. “Today I’m glad to see the DOJ fulfilled that request and is standing by a free and open internet.”
Under the law, the party that controls the White House enjoys a 3-2 partisan majority at both the FCC and FTC. So while Rosenworcel is expected to fully restore net neutrality rules in time, that can’t happen until the Biden Administration selects—and Congress confirms—a third Democratic Commissioner.
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