The lobbying might of Big Cable was on show again this week when a critical net neutrality bill in the California legislature was gutted to remove its most important features.
Net neutrality advocates and the lead sponsor of the legislation were left fuming when the chair of the Assembly's communications committee in Sacramento, Democrat Miguel Santiago, pushed through a vote that significantly amended bill SB 822.
Unusually, the vote was called before the committee had even opened its hearing into the legislation. The bill passed the California Senate largely intact, despite an earlier effort to kill off its main features, and is now in the Assembly as it progresses through the legislative process.
The vote passed 8-2, with four Democrats joining four Republicans to remove a ban on zero-rating content by advertisers, on "access fees" where ISPs could charge websites a fee to avoid being blocked, and on throttling specific applications i.e. particular messaging services. Only once the vote was over did lawmakers open the floor to comments.
The lawmaker who developed the law, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) was sufficiently incensed to put out a statement calling the vote "outrageous."
"The Assembly committee forced hostile amendments into the bill before even holding a hearing, before taking any public comment, and only 12 hours after making those amendments public," he railed. "These hostile amendments eviscerate the bill and leave us with a net neutrality bill in name only."
The ever-excitable Evan Greer of net neutrality advocates Fight for the Future took things one step further, saying that "the level of corruption we just witnessed literally makes me sick to my stomach."
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Greer went on: "These California democrats will go down in history as among the worst corporate shills that have ever held elected office… The actions of this committee today are an attack not just on net neutrality, but on our democracy."
The changes are suspicious and numerous commentators pointed out that they represent a virtual cable industry wish list, highlighting the enormous reach and influence that well-funded lobbyists have within the US political system.
In some cases, the case made for the changes was transparently developed by the cable industry itself, with one study arguing that zero rating was financially beneficial for Californians easily trackable back to AT&T shill CALinnovates.
The sudden vote led to online activists scouring the donation records of those lawmakers that had agreed to gut the legislation and to no one's surprise significant donations from AT&T, Comcast and Verizon were recorded.
There is even a picture of chair Miguel Santiago holding a giant check for $750,000 from AT&T for a charity in his district.
As with the raft of changes made while the bill was passing through the Senate however – a situation that also caused net neutrality advocates to freak out – it is still possible for all the removed clauses to be put back in again.
Santiago's Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee approved its amended bill and then referred it to the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection. That committee is able to put all of the protections back in. Or not. And it can also make its own changes.
In short, no one likes seeing the sausage be made. Especially when half the people on the assembly line are wearing AT&T hats. ®