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Justice Department Sues California Over Net Neutrality Law


California is on track to find out just how much control one state can have over giant Internet service providers. This weekend, California passed a law making Internet providers treat all websites the same, no speeding up or slowing down access to certain sites. Within hours, the Trump administration announced that it's suing California. Earlier this year, the administration removed those standards at the federal level. Tim Wu is with us now. He's a Columbia Law professor. And he actually coined the term net neutrality.

Tim, welcome to the show.

TIM WU: Good morning.

MARTIN: Why is this a priority for the Department of Justice, net neutrality?

WU: You know, I think that they have decided they really want to have an environment where, you know, it's open for business, I guess is their argument. And they're concerned that California's meddling with federal policies.

MARTIN: Well, how effective is California's position? I mean, the federal government argues this is an issue of interstate commerce. So federal laws are more effective than state laws. I mean, don't they have a point? The Internet doesn't exactly recognize state boundaries.

WU: I think that - well, first of all, California's law, I think, would be very effective in the sense that the broadband providers in California would have to listen to it. And you know, California's a very large state. But you know, how - if you're asking their legal position, I think it's a little of an open question.

What California's going to say is, listen. They're not trying to regulate the whole Internet. They're regulating how it's delivered. And it's always delivered locally when you think about it. You know, it's just between - it's just that thing in your home and the wire to the local state. That's all they care about. They're not trying to control everything. And so I think that's what California's argument will be.

MARTIN: What is the precedent this could set? I mean, dozens of other states are considering net neutrality laws. Right?

WU: In fact, dozens of other states have new net neutrality laws. You know, it gets to a really fundamental policy question, which is whether the states are sort of free to experiment economically, fill in gaps. The federal government has abandoned net neutrality for reasons known to themselves. And they want that to be the rule for the whole Union. In other words, we want there to be no rules for any Internet providers. And other states feel differently. Internet's - sorry - California is where much of the Internet was invented. And so I think that's what's at stake here, is really the fundamental question of federalism and who gets to decide.

MARTIN: How do you think this plays out in this particular skirmish? I mean, California, we should note, is battling with the Trump administration on a lot of fronts - on immigration, on climate change. This is the latest.

WU: So one thing, I think, that makes it hard for the Trump administration is that California is legislating to a vacuum. You know, the Trump administration says, we don't want to have any rules in this area. And California says, we do. You know, we think this is dangerous. So it's not a case where the Trump - or the federal government is directly pre-empting - that's the word - California law. On the other hand, it's a question of the California law goes so far that it really does regulate interstate commerce, as the phrase goes. And so it's all a question of whether the Internet, at some level, is really local or really national or international. And I think that is a very complicated technical question. It depends on how you see the delivery of Internet services.

MARTIN: Where do you see the big Silicon Valley firms lining up on this?

WU: I mean, I think almost all of them want - they've all said they'd like a net neutrality law. They don't like the idea that, you know, Comcast or AT&T will try to charge them extra or block their content. No, most people - the vast majority Americans want net neutrality laws. It's sort of the - it's an audience of two, this law. It's - the broadband lobby and the Trump administration like this law. And so I'm not surprised how many states are trying to fill in the gaps.

MARTIN: Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School.

Thanks so much for your time.

WU: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.