SACRAMENTO — A California lawmaker’s decision to alter a net neutrality bill considered one of the nation’s most aggressive efforts to require an equal playing field on the internet has generated intensely personal online attacks aimed at his family as well as criticism from fellow Democrats in Congress.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago leads a committee that this week stripped whole chunks of a net neutrality measure. He stirred a passionate reaction from open internet advocates who think the state that is home to the technology sector and the liberal resistance to President Donald Trump should take a hardline stance on the matter.
The decision reverberated far beyond California’s Capitol, drawing rebukes from members of Congress and leading the state Democratic chairman to try to diffuse tension. Santiago quickly drew fire in online memes and a flood of calls to his office accusing the Los Angeles lawmaker of selling out to internet providers, citing his contributions from AT&T.
“My personal family pictures have been stolen from my social media platforms and used to create memes,” Santiago wrote in a lengthy statement defending his move Friday. “This is a new low.”
One meme shows a picture of him with his wife and two children with text portraying a hypothetical conversation in which Santiago tells them how to be “a sellout whore” who is “just like daddy.” Facebook commenters urged people not to donate to the foundation where his wife works.
In his most thorough explanation for the decision to date, Santiago said he changed the bill to help it withstand legal muster. But the bill’s author, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, declared his measure “eviscerated” and “mutilated,” saying he couldn’t stand behind legislation that he doesn’t believe has teeth.
Wiener said the attacks on Santiago are inappropriate.
“That is fair game to criticize any elected official for the positions that we take,” Wiener said. “It’s not OK to attack people’s families or to engage in personal attacks.”
The Federal Communications Commission last year repealed Obama-era regulations that prevented internet companies from speeding up or slowing down the delivery of certain content.
The debate in California is being closely watched by net neutrality advocates around the country, who are looking to the state to pass sweeping net neutrality provisions that could drive momentum in other states, Marc Martin said, chair of the communications group at the law firm Perkins Coie.
“California’s got this very significant Democratic majority. If it can’t make it there, how’s it going to make it anywhere else?” Martin said.
Three states have adopted legislation that takes various approaches preserving net neutrality, but Wiener’s California bill was seen as the most comprehensive effort.
Wiener and Santiago both said they’re committed to improving the bill, though it’s unclear if their differences can be bridged.
Santiago has taken the bulk of the fire for amendments that were approved by eight of the 11 members of the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee.
The showdown represents the latest flashpoint in the Democratic Party over ideological purity. California Democratic Party chairman Eric Bauman attempted to defuse tension Thursday with a statement urging Santiago and Weiner to work together to find the right solution. He did not condemn Santiago’s actions.