What’s next for net neutrality?

After a crushing legislative blow, California leads the fight for a free and fair internet

A federal appellate court delivered a ruling Tuesday representing both victory and set-back for supporters of net neutrality.

After months of anticipation, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to uphold the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) 2017 repeal of protections for a fair and open internet. At the same time, the court also determined that the FCC can’t prevent states from implementing their own internet rules.

For many advocates, net neutrality is seen as a foundational principle of the internet. Without it, ISPs like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T could prioritize data traffic based on payouts or even relationships they have with other companies.

Gaurev Laroia, the senior legal counsel for the net neutrality advocacy group, said he doesn’t believe ISPs should have the power to regulate the internet usage net neutrality laws provide them.

“You should be able to send information to whomever you want and receive it from whomever you want without the owners of the pipes getting in the way,” Laroia said. “We don’t think the power grid should be able to tell you what electronics you can plug into it, right? That situation is untenable. And that’s what we’re looking at without net neutrality.”

According to the U.S. Census, nearly 80% of households in Los Angeles have an internet subscription, with Spectrum and AT&T acting as the most prominent ISPs in the area. Those two companies, along with other major ISPs like Verizon and Comcast, are some of the loudest voices opposing net neutrality. They argue that when the internet is treated like a public utility, it stifles investment and deters much of the competition that drives innovation. In other words, a fair and open internet is antithetical to the tenets of capitalism.

Clifford Neuman, the director of USC’s Center for Computer Systems Security and a net neutrality expert, said that the argument that net neutrality restricts capitalism is specious because most people only have one or two providers to choose from.

“You don’t have real competition, so they can’t really argue that free-market principles are going to apply,” he said. “ISPs are really just using the monopoly they have to try to extract extra revenue streams.”

Although this week’s ruling is a major disappointment to those who were hoping for a complete reversal of the FCC’s rules, it offered some respite in the form of state protections. California is one of 34 states with its own net neutrality laws that were on hold while the case moved through the court system.

Laroia said that Tuesday’s decision will clear the path for states to move forward.

“California has said loudly and clearly that if the federal government isn’t going to protect those rights, then we’re going to do it,” he said. “I think now you’re going to see, hopefully, an avalanche of state’s net neutrality laws.”

With the remaining 28 days of this year’s legislative calendar expected to be occupied by impeachment activities, further federal decisions on net neutrality will likely have to wait until 2020. Until then, states like California will be working to enact their own protections for the net.

Karen Gullo, an analyst for the net neutrality advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that public involvement will be critical to the fight.

“USC students can be advocates for net neutrality protections,” she said, adding that everyone should contact their Senators and urge them to restore net neutrality protections.