Net Results: Is California leading net neutrality rebellion?

Trump’s self-googling ego set for bruising with Bill to curb internet service providers

While the most attention-grabbing tech event this week was the appearance of two high-profile Silicon Valley executives before two US congressional committees, the more quietly dramatic was a vote last Friday in the California state legislature.

The optics were certainly more lively in Washington DC as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey faced questions on Wednesday from the Senate Intelligence Committee. Dorsey continued on to a second hearing, to get more guff from the House Commerce Committee.

A prickly questions-and-answers session over the role of social media platforms in spreading misinformation, with lawmakers well aware that major elections are swiftly approaching in November, guaranteed headlines.

However, these hearings are unlikely to have the political heft of either the bipartisan congressional grilling given to a range of social media companies in 2017, when executives were first taken to task over their failure to notice manipulation of their platforms in the 2016 US presidential election – or of last spring's face-to-face with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

This week’s hearings were more partisan and political. The commerce committee hearing was entirely about Republican concern at possible political bias on the platforms – was Twitter less welcoming to conservative opinion and more likely to remove right-wing voices?

Similar objections were raised a few times at Zuckerberg's hearings in Washington, and by Nigel Farage when the Facebook chief appeared before the European Parliament in early summer.

And, of course, also in a series of Trump tweets recently in which he claimed Google, Facebook and Twitter treated conservatives "very unfairly" and that Google search results on Trump were "RIGGED".

International gatekeepers

Trump also mentioned possible antitrust investigations. Wednesday’s hearings may well contribute to a slow build towards such scrutiny – and I believe such a move to be necessary for these uniquely powerful, opaque private companies that have become international gatekeepers for discussion and news dissemination.

But Trump is deluded if he believes any investigation will be on the basis of whether he is sufficiently flattered by his Google search returns. Republicans (and Democrats) who mentioned the “A” word to Zuckerberg did so in the context of the platform’s broad power, secretiveness, access to data and lack of accountability, not vanity searches.

The EU is far more likely to act against the platforms on antitrust grounds than the US, which has shown little interest in using its antitrust powers since its 1990s case against Microsoft, way back when dial-up modems were the norm, and Apple was a failing company expected to collapse any minute.

By contrast, California’s defiant passage last Friday of a muscular net neutrality Bill is likely to have more immediate impact and greater political repercussions.

If signed into law this month by state governor Jerry Brown – and there's little reason to think he won't do it – the Bill will restore and even expand Obama-era protections to prevent internet service providers from blocking sites, deliberately throttling internet speeds or prioritising net traffic for companies willing to pay more for a "fast lane" service.

Raised fist

In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), newly led by Trump's telco-friendly appointee, Ajit Pai, had overturned such net neutrality provisions.

Welcoming the California Bill's passage, internet freedom advocates the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that a majority of Americans supported net neutrality and, pointedly, stated "This is a victory that can be replicated."

That’s exactly where the politics and policy implications of this vote get very interesting. California’s dash to rescue net neutrality is a raised fist to the Trump administration and, as the EFF implies, may well prove to be a rallying call to other states, which regularly follow California’s lead.

Some 30 of them already have started work on legislation to retrieve net neutrality for their territories, an own-goal for the ISPs and telcos who pushed Pai to revoke it at federal level. The last thing they want now is dozens of variations on net neutrality, creating a devilishly complex market – or rather, up to 50 inconsistent state micro-markets.

One of the largest telecoms lobby groups, USTelecom, conceded as much, with president and chief executive Jonathan Spalter noting: "The internet must be governed by a single, uniform and consistent national policy framework, not state-by-state piecemeal approaches . . . Congress should step in to legislate and provide consumer protections that will resolve this issue once and for all."

Yet, theoretically, a state cannot legislate individually in this way, as the FCC has claimed a (legally dubious) right to “pre-empt” state laws. California has signalled its intent to do so anyway, showing a willingness to go to court over this conflict between federal reach and state rights.

As important mid-term elections approach, a feisty rebellion by a majority of states on net neutrality would be a significant embarrassment for Donald Trump. He pledged early on to overturn the rules, and Pai's action was one of his earliest (and few) policy "achievements".

If the states prevail, Trump might soon dislike his personal Google search results even more.