Justice Department drops net neutrality suit against California

Department of justice sign on a building
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The US government signalled a significant U-turn in its net neutrality approach after dropping a legal case against California.

In Eastern California District Court, the Biden administration retracted the Trump-era legal action that challenged the state’s pro-net neutrality legislation.

Net neutrality forbids telecommunications companies from treating network traffic differently based on its type or its origin. It was a longstanding principle underpinning the internet, which the Obama administration officially regulated in 2015.

In 2017, under the Trump administration, former FCC chairman Ajit Pai overturned that regulation, striking down the net neutrality rules and enabling telcos to discern between different types of internet traffic.

California passed its own legislation, SB 822, in 2018 aimed at reintroducing net neutrality laws in the state. The Department of Justice (DoJ) then launched a lawsuit against the state, claiming its legislation contradicted the FCC's ruling and the state didn't have the right to decide telecommunications policy.

SB 822 was supposed to come into effect on January 1, 2019, but Attorney General Xavier Becerra agreed to stay the legislation while a Washington, DC court decided on a case brought against the FCC by Mozilla, Vimeo, and 22 states objecting to the Commission's net neutrality rollback. The court ruled in the FCC's favor in October 2019.

The DoJ responded to a judicial query, officially dropping its case against California on Monday, prompting new FCC chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, to issue a formal statement.

"I am pleased that the Department of Justice has withdrawn this lawsuit. When the FCC, over my objection, rolled back its net neutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws," she said. "By taking this step, Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land."

California still has some work ahead of it before it can enforce its proposed legislation, though. It faces litigation from other parties: the American Cable Association, the CTIA wireless trade association, the Internet & Television Association, and the United States Telecom Association (USTelecom).

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.