As the latest Internet-wide protest over a pending D.C. policy shift comes to a close, the natural question is: Will it make a difference?
Organizers of a net neutrality “day of action,” designed to urge the FCC to retain its existing rules of the road for the Internet, said that more than 1.6 million comments were filed to the agency as of Wednesday afternoon, after thousands of websites posted messages warning of a proposed rollback of existing net neutrality rules.
Under the new Republican majority on the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai has launched a new proceeding on whether the regulatory framework for net neutrality, passed in 2015, should be revised. Pai has been a longtime critic of the FCC’s approach, in which Internet service was reclassified as a “Title II” telecommunications service, and he has the votes to repeal them. There is little indication that his sentiments have changed.
“It will certainly make a difference to the extent that Pai has to respond” to the comments, said Gigi Sohn, a longtime champion of net neutrality who served as counselor to Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler.
“This is not the end of the campaign,” she added. “This is just the beginning. This is just the kickoff.”
Many in D.C. policy circles believe that the most likely place where the fight will end up is where it has three times in the past — in the courts.
Wednesday’s protest was different than previous Internet mobilizations — more informational and much less confrontational. Back in 2012, as Congress looked to be headed to passing anti-piracy legislation opposed by Internet companies, Google participated in a web “blackout” protest by putting a censor bar over its logo on its home page.
This time, Google did not place any message on its home page. Instead, it posted a message on its public policy blog and sent out an email to its Take Action network, urging users to file comments to the FCC via the Internet Association’s net neutrality website.
Another difference is the timing, with the Trump White House dominating the headlines and Congress fixated on the fate of healthcare. “Federal Communications Commission” trended on Facebook, but the issue has been competing against a whole lot of other urgent issues for attention.
Still, organizers said that they were very pleased with the response, and point to the fact that the number of comments filed to the FCC — more than 6.8 million as of Wednesday — surpassed a record weeks ago.
Other major websites did feature “day of action” messages prominently on their home pages. Netflix featured a banner with the message, “Protect Internet Freedom,” while Amazon featured a homepage link that read, simply, “Net neutrality? Learn more.” The link took users to the Internet Association’s page.
Reddit’s homepage featured a message over its homepage that slowly typed out, in part, “The internet’s less fun when your favorite sites load slowly, isn’t it? Whether you’re here for news, AMAs, or some good old-fashioned cats in business attire, the internet’s at its best when you — not internet service providers — decide what you see online.”
Hollywood studios stayed out of the fight, but the Writers Guild of America posted a “Don’t Kill the Open Internet” message on its homepage, while Pearl Jam, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Mark Ruffalo posted messages on social media.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who has been traveling the country and was in Sturgis, S.D., posted a message on his page, also directing comments to the FCC.
“Right now, the FCC has rules in place to make sure the internet continues to be an open platform for everyone,” he wrote. “At Facebook, we strongly support those rules. We’re also open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality.”
But the prospects for congressional legislation don’t seem all that great right now, particularly given the polarization on Capitol Hill.
Representatives from Internet companies and their trade group, the Internet Association, met on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with staffers from Republicans in the House. A source informed of the meeting told Variety that lawmakers’ representatives queried the companies with their concerns over the plans for the Day of Action, while Dow Jones reported that the discussion grew confrontational at times.
The Internet Association has been directing comments not at Congress, but to the FCC. But other organizers of Wednesday’s “day of action,” like Fight for the Future, have been asking for comments to the agency as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill, exerting pressure should the issue become a legislative battle.
Noah Theran, a spokesman for the Internet Association, said that “the Internet sector will continue to advocate — in every venue available — for enforceable net neutrality rules that prohibit blocking, throttling and paid prioritization.”
Fight for the Future said that the number of comments filed surpassed the number filed on Sept. 10, 2014, when activists waged a campaign urging the then-Democratic led agency to adopt a robust set of net neutrality regulations. It did.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a critic of Title II reclassification, called for bipartisan legislation in an op-ed in Recode on Wednesday.
“True supporters of a free and open internet should spend their energy today driving leaders toward a lasting and bipartisan solution while rejecting efforts to politicize and further divide an emerging consensus about net neutrality protections,” he wrote.
At a press conference on the grounds of the Capitol, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), said that “our phones are ringing off the hook in my office,” with called urging lawmakers “don’t do it. Don’t hamper our access to the Internet.”
Thune has called for bipartisan legislation on net neutrality, and AT&T and Comcast made similar pitches in their comments on the Day of Action.
But there is a lot of skepticism among Democrats that any legislation will not include significant loopholes.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), said that the FCC’s pending vote was a “Republican initiative to get rid of net neutrality.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), said that if the regulatory foundation for net neutrality is rolled back, “we start to head back to an information aristocracy in America, where the well to do have access to a technology treasure trove. And I guess folks with modest incomes will start to think about dial-up again because that is what the world could look like.”
He did make comparisons of the latest fight to the 2012 battle over the anti-piracy legislation, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act.
“We have been in tough battles before that no one said we could win,” he said.