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Federal judge says California can enforce net neutrality law

FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2020, file photo, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, speaks at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif. On Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, a federal judge ruled California could enforce a 2018 net neutrality law. The law, authored by Wiener, aims to prevent internet service providers from intentionally slowing down internet speeds, among other things. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that California can for the first time enforce its tough net neutrality law, clearing the way for the state to ban internet providers from slowing down or blocking access to websites and applications that don't pay for premium service.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill in 2018, making California the first state to pass a net neutrality law. Open internet advocates hoped the law would spur Congress and other states to follow suit. The Trump administration quickly sued to block the law, which prevented it from taking effect for years while the case was tied up in court.

The Biden administration dropped that lawsuit earlier this month. But in a separate lawsuit, the telecom industry asked a federal judge to keep blocking the law. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez denied their request, allowing California to begin enforcing the law.

California state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco and the author of the law, called the ruling “a huge victory for open access to the internet, our democracy and our economy.”

“The internet is at the heart of modern life. We all should be able to decide for ourselves where we go on the internet and how we access information," Wiener said. "We cannot allow big corporations to make those decisions for us.”

In a joint statement, multiple telecom industry associations said they will review the judge's decision “before deciding on next steps.” They urged Congress to set net-neutrality rules for the country rather than relying on states to come up with regulations on their own.

“A state-by-state approach to Internet regulation will confuse consumers and deter innovation, just as the importance of broadband for all has never been more apparent," read the statement from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, ACA Connects, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and USTelecom.

California's law was spurred by the Federal Communications Commission's 2017 decision to repeal net-neutrality rules that applied nationwide. The telecom industry fought hard against the bill, arguing it would discourage companies from investing in faster internet speeds.

But advocates say without the rules, it would make it easy for internet providers to favor their own services by making it harder for customers to access their competitors' websites and apps.

The law seeks to ban internet providers from slowing down customers' data streams based on the content they are viewing. It also bars providers from speeding up access to websites willing to pay extra for special treatment.

“The ability of an internet service provider to block, slow down or speed up content based on a user’s ability to pay for service degrades the very idea of a competitive marketplace and the open transfer of information at the core of our increasingly digital and connected world," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.