The Justice Department Had Sued California Over Its New Net Neutrality Law. Why the Lawsuit Is Suddenly on Hold

October 29, 2018, 11:13 AM UTC

The Justice Department just agreed to delay a lawsuit over California’s new net neutrality law—as long as California doesn’t start enforcing it on Jan. 1, 2019 as scheduled.

The agreement is the latest chapter in the saga over the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 rule change to allow Internet service providers to charge companies more to deliver their content at high quality and high speeds, basically establishing a fast lane on the web. The California lawsuit could have huge implications for the future of the rule. Here’s what you need to know.

What was the lawsuit about?

California Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s strictest net neutrality protections into law on Sept. 30. The state was immediately sued by the Justice Department on the basis that the federal government, rather than states, are responsible for regulating interstate commerce, and that the California law was therefore illegal because it attempts to undermine federal laws. Moreover, the federal net neutrality rule has language that preempts states putting their own protections into place. Four lobbying groups representing the telecommunications industry also filed a lawsuit against California several days later, claiming that the law would make prices for consumers go up.

Why did the Justice Department agree to postpone?

A separate case working its way through the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals could have massive implications for the Justice Department’s lawsuit against California. That suit, brought against the FCC by a group of 22 state attorneys general, consumer advocates, and industry groups, is an attempt to undo the repeal of net neutrality rules at the federal level. Because of the outsize impact the verdict in that case would have on the California case, both sides have agreed to hold off until it’s decided.

What happens now?

If the FCC loses its case in the D.C. Circuit, California’s law would be redundant, as net neutrality rules would return to the way they were before the repeal. Even if the court finds in favor of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules, it could decide against the preemption of states passing their own rules. That would bolster California’s case. But the outcome won’t necessarily be a slam dunk. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that the California lawsuit challenges the new law not only on the grounds of the FCC rule’s preemption, but also on the basis that only the federal government can regulate interstate commerce. That challenge could go ahead regardless of the D.C. Circuit’s decision.

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