California advances bill to combat digital discrimination in broadband access

While facing opposition from industry representatives citing concerns over legal ramifications and operational costs, supporters argue for the necessity of ensuring equitable internet access for all Californians.

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A bill in California, AB 2239, was recently passed through a committee. It aims to tackle digital discrimination in broadband access, defining ‘digital discrimination’ as unfair practices hindering internet access based on income or ethnicity.

Despite opposition from industry representatives fearing legal implications and costs, supporters argued for the necessity of ensuring equitable broadband access. However, worries persisted about potential misapplication of the bill, including fears of impeding industry growth and innovation and enabling unjustified claims of discrimination. Some proposed including a safe harbour provision to shield companies from legal consequences.

Meanwhile, supporters highlighted findings from nearly half a million speed tests across Oakland, revealing significant disparities in internet speeds, particularly affecting communities of colour. They also cited examples of higher internet costs in neighbourhoods with higher poverty rates. Their testimony was supported by 28 representatives from various digital equity and community organisations statewide, including the California Emerging Technology Fund and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee will now review the bill, and it is scheduled for a hearing in May 2024.

Why does it matter?

These developments relate to the ongoing court review of the FCC’s digital discrimination rules, which were approved last November. Some argue these rules may surpass the scope of the Infrastructure Act, which inspired California’s AB 2239, aimed at addressing disparities in broadband access. Opponents argue that the rules utilise a ‘disparate impact’ standard, which could hold providers responsible for unintentional disparities in internet access among various demographic groups, a claim disputed by the agency.