California has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to increasing regulation, and internet access services are no exception.
The regulatory responsibility for Internet and telecom services in California lies with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). It drafts and executes strategies for the telecom industry, which includes ensuring affordable, fair access to essential services and removing barriers that prevent a competitive market.
However, CPUC authority is mostly relegated to areas where telecom services touch public resources, such as establishing video franchise areas and distributing subsidy money to connect rural areas.
The most impactful regulations currently in place in regards to internet access and online privacy are Senate Bill 822, which upholds Net Neutrality principles in the state, and the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA), which maintains certain rights for consumers in regards to their rights to privacy online.
In this post, we’ll provide an overview of how internet regulation works in the state of California, presented in non-technical terms for a general audience.
Background: FCC Stance on Net Neutrality
Net neutrality is essentially the notion that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data flowing via their cell towers and cables equitably. That means they mustn’t be capable of sliding some content into “fast lanes,” discriminating against or blocking other digital material.
In America, Internet services regulation falls under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The net neutrality subject in the States hinges on the political climate in the country, since the Democrats favor net neutrality’s liberal principles, and the Republicans are usually against that.
Initially, in 2005, the FCC had adopted policies in favor of net neutrality. When certain service providers blocked access to certain sites, the FCC had a legal tussle with the service providers. The courts, in 2014, ruled that the FCC cannot regulate ISPs without first classifying the service providers as “common carriers.”
Subsequently, in 2015, the FCC issued the Open Internet Order that classified ISPs as common carriers (Title II), thus allowing it to enforce net neutrality principles. When the helm of affairs changed in 2017, Ajit Pai became the FCC commissioner. Pai, who has always been vocal against net neutrality, wanted to roll back the Open Internet Order.
Pai effectively reclassified Internet services as information service (Title I), loosening FCC regulations on them. Pai reasoned that the regulations put multiple restrictions on companies, dissuading them from investing more, innovating, and ensuring speedy broadband access across the country.
The rollback was issued in December 2017, amidst heavy public protests. The rollback rule denoted neither local nor state governments could defy the FCC’s ruling.
Several tech companies, state governments, and public interest groups sued the FCC, as a result. In October 2019, an appeals court upheld FCC’s rights to recategorize Internet services as information services (Title I), but the court also stated that the FCC cannot enforce the rules on local or state governments. This resulted in net neutrality becoming more of a state subject.
Efforts are being continually made in the U.S. Congress to pass a law that would bring Internet services under the purview of common carrier services (Title II) again so that net neutrality principles are supported.
California State Law vs FCC Federal Regulation on Online Privacy and Net Neutrality
The court ruling emboldened local and state governments to go ahead with their own regulations. California, which has been championing the cause for a free and open Internet, adopted its own net neutrality rules in 2018. It did that shortly after the rollback carried out by the FCC.
Even though the court’s ruling indicates the absence of federal regulations to prohibit Internet service providers from slowing access to or blocking websites or charging a premium to access certain sites or online services, states would now be able to defend their laws better in court going forward. California, like other states, has multiple legal battles to face before it could set up secure and strong net neutrality protections.
Besides California, other states such as New York, Montana, Hawaii, Washington, New Jersey, Vermont, and Rhode Island have passed net neutrality legislation of their own or issued administrative orders banning state businesses from engaging with ISPs that do not uphold net neutrality principles. California’s law comprises the most thorough safeguards of any state.
California’s Net Neutrality Law
The California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act (2018) law is designed to safeguard net neutrality. The Act was ratified in September 2018. According to the law, ISPs cannot indulge in the following activities:
- Block or slow lawful traffic
- Sign up for Zero-rating
- Receive payment from specific online service providers
- Put in device-specific restrictions
- Try to evade the laws, etc.
The law largely echoes the FCC’s discarded net neutrality rules from 2015. However, it goes a bit further by regulating things such as anti-competitive misuse of usage caps (also called “zero-rating”), alongside the form of interconnection meddling that led to Netflix users experiencing streaming slowdowns in 2014.
Though the law has been lauded by the general public and several businesses, the administration is not happy about states creating their own laws on Internet use. In fact, within hours of signing the law, the Department of Justice filed a suit against the state so that the law doesn’t go into effect.
When Will California Be Able to Enforce Its Net Neutrality Law?
The court’s ruling could be appealed, and the appeals process can take a year, at least. California would then be free to bring its law into force. However, until then, Californians can enjoy their open Internet as always.
Even if the law doesn’t come into place, residents of California and people living in other states need not worry about blocked or throttled Internet services too much (at least as of now) because broadband service providers know such a step would only backfire at them, particularly when current public sentiments toward net neutrality are high.
However, rules are uncertain, and without proper federal rules and guidelines, there is pretty much nothing keeping these Internet companies in check. Therefore, having strong rules instituted is any day better than having to depend on ISPs to operate in the users’ best interests.
CCPA and California Internet User Privacy Rights
The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) enables California consumers to request to see all information a business has amassed, along with the complete list of other companies that the data gets shared with. Moreover, the law lets consumers sue a service provider if the privacy laws have been violated.
In a gist, the law will afford Californians the right to:
- Access their personal data stored by companies
- Ask for the deletion of the data
- Prevent a company from selling the information to third parties
If you’d like to know the kind of information companies such as Google or Facebook collect about you, the CCPA would help you gain some much-needed insight. The Act, in essence, aims to give you increased control over your information. Big technology companies have been amassing users’ personal data for quite some time now without much accountability. The CCPA tries to bring down the curtains on that.
Besides learning what data businesses collect and share, consumers in California also have the option to not sign up for a service if they do not fancy their information getting collected and/or shared. Such consumers can let businesses know their thoughts and ask for the complete deletion of their information from their databases.
Can California ISPs Sue You for Torrenting Copyrighted Content?
The act of torrenting or downloading the latest movies, music, TV series, games, books, etc. for free is extremely popular. The process itself isn’t illegal, but downloading and sharing copyright material that has not been sanctioned for free dissemination is not legal.
In the U.S. and several other countries, ISPs and governments collaborate to track down users who distribute copyright material in the form of torrenting. ISPs usually are not actively searching for “torrenters,” but they naturally despise the practice. Government authorities subpoena ISPs every now and then seeking personal data of users torrenting copyrighted material.
ISPs usually spot such users tracking down their IP addresses. Torrenting client software facilitates the process since it stores the IP addresses of its users, who are usually referred to as “leechers” and “seeders” in torrenting lingo.
If your ISP gets summoned by “copyright trolls” – companies or individuals who go after torrent pirates for a living – you could receive an email from your ISP for your illegal torrenting activities. The letter doesn’t necessarily indicate that a lawsuit has been initiated against you, or the copyright holder is in the process of doing so, but that could possibly be the next step.
The company could sue you for perceived damages and seek an inordinate amount as compensation.
Receiving an email from your ISP and then being slapped penalty charges can be quite scary, particularly if you’ve never experienced anything like that before. Therefore, if you can live without torrenting, it’s recommended you do that.
Why Is Privacy on the Internet So Important?
Internet user privacy is not just about having the option to prevent companies from logging your personal data but also knowing how to safely use the Internet in general, particularly when performing business transactions online.
In this age of likes, hashtags, tweets, snaps, and shares, online privacy could seem pretty much non-existent. It’s not just businesses collecting information about their users by snooping on them. Oftentimes, people voluntarily hand over their data too.
So, what’s the fuss all about when consumers are voluntary participants themselves? First of all, most people who share their information have little to zero knowledge about how their information gets used. However, what’s even more critical is that cybercriminals are constantly on the hunt for personal and financial information of individuals.
If some random person on the Internet is able to procure your data, they would gain access to your banking information, obtain loans or credit cards in your name, and annihilate your credit score in the process.
Here are a few things you could do to safeguard your identity online:
- Make sure you have virus protection software installed on your computer.
- Use unique and strong passwords or two-factor authentication.
- Steer clear of email and phishing scams, which try to swindle away your personal data.
- Be wary of online requests seeking personal information.
- Be extremely careful about who has access to your private payment information.
Filing a Complaint Against an ISP or company operating online in California
The following outlets are appropriate if you are having an issue with a company’s adherence to CCPA or the use of your personal information for purposes like sales calls or fraudulent charges.
Note: Before you take up the matter with a third party, try to resolve the issue with your ISP or cable TV service provider first. You’ll presumably do this first. But it’s important that you give the company some time to address your concerns. If the service provider is non-responsive or the resolution is not satisfactory, you may explore other avenues.
- Get in touch with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Go to the site’s “file a complaint” page and register a complaint against your ISP.
- Fill in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) here on your qualms. Your individual complaint might not move the needle. But if multiple people file complaints against the particular ISP, the FTC would likely spring into action and investigate the matter.
- Email the FTC’s Consumer Fraud department at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may use this email address to report on frauds and spam on the Internet.
- You can also file a complaint against your ISP with the FCC. Make sure you get in touch with the FTC or FCC only if there is a serious violation case. A rude phone rep, delayed services, etc. are things you shouldn’t be taking up with these agencies.
- Contact an attorney general in California. Look up online for attorney generals in the state, and you’ll be presented with multiples of them. Once you’ve zeroed in on a legal professional, email them delineating every possible detail of your grievance.
- The Ripoff Report is a great platform through which you can have your worries heard. It’s also a great place to learn more about your ISP or any other service provider before signing up for their services. Pissed Consumer is another option.
- If your Internet service provider isn’t delivering the goods, let the Yelp community know what your experience has been like. Businesses care about their reputation online, and they can go to any extent to keep their image intact, which may include alleviating your concerns.
As aforementioned, before filing a complaint with federal agencies such as the FTC or FCC, make sure you have serious problems with your ISP. The ISP not providing promised speeds, billing, or charging you unreasonably, throttling or blocking online content, etc. are matters you can take up with them.