On Wednesday, July 12th, over 50,000 websites wrote slogans on digital poster paper that read: “We support Net Neutrality!”
You see, the FCC plans to wipe the Internet clean of Net Neutrality. And that means the porn’s in trouble too, so the people are pissed. So pissed they Googled “Who is my Congressman?” and then picked up the phone and called to complain to an intern whose biceps are now beach-ready. That valiant Wednesday has been immortalized on Wikipedia as the Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality (sounds like a title that needs “soon to be made into a feature film” added as a postface).
Yet if you spent the last few days further solidifying your political ideology on Twitter and have no idea what Net Neutrality is, here’s the rundown. Net Neutrality in its most basic, grade school friendly summary, is a rule forcing ISPs — that means Verizon, Nextlight, Comcast (shudders) — to treat all data on their network equally. They can’t discriminate data even if it's between high-quality VR pornography and endless images of the already dead Hot Dog Boy. No throttling allowed.
Nor can Internet providers create paid-for fast-lanes, and then advertise them to companies as a means to boost their speeds. Without net neutrality, a man wearing a Verizon collared shirt and monocle might say, “Hey, Netflix, you like The Eagles? Do you want to see what life is like in the fast lane? Well, you just got to pay a little more and then you’ll stop losing business because the new season of House of Cards isn’t loading for your consumers and flocking to Hulu.”
To some degree, net neutrality is why Joe Shmuck’s Karl Marx Tumblr blog can garner an audience; while a startup company that mimics and improves upon Skype can compete in the market. Neither has to pay an additional cost to an ISP to be competitive, to be fast enough, to be usable. Because we all know if any page doesn’t load instantly you X out and move on to the next distraction. As the story goes, thanks to net neutrality, underfunded ideas can survive.
Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian echoed the sentiment: “We weren’t always in the top ten most-viewed sites in the U.S. When Steve and I started Reddit right out of college, we were just two kids with $12K in funding and some computers in Medford.. we wouldn’t have succeeded if users had to pay extra to visit our website, or if better-funded alternatives loaded faster.” He goes on to say, “Our start-up got to live the American dream thanks to the open Internet, and I want to be able to tell aspiring entrepreneurs with a straight face that they can build the next Reddit. If we lose net neutrality, I can’t tell them that.”
Sounds good, yeah? No wonder Fight for the Future, one of the primary organizing campaigns for Wednesday's protest, reported the following impressive numbers:
– Tens of millions of people saw the protest messages on participating websites
– Over 5 million emails to Congress (which will be delivered over coming days)
– More than 2 million comments to the FCC (nearly tripling our Sept. 10th 2014 “Internet Slowdown” record for most in a single day)
– 124,000 phone calls to Congress
– #NetNeutrality trended on both Facebook and Twitter
– Protesters went in person to more than 20 Congressional offices
– More than 125,000 websites, people, artists, online creators, and organizations signed up to participate in the initial call to protest
So, does that mean the corporate ISP overlords are smoking fat cigars and throwing kittens out of windows as they maniacally laugh over the prospective corpse of net neutrality? If only it were that simple. Turns out, they’re just kind of pissed off that they're legally bound by Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 (the keystone to net neutrality) — which was subsequently updated in 1996, still well before the Internet of today. So as it currently stands, the rules that bind ISPs are like an 83-year-old curmudgeon dictating fashions he doesn’t even know exist. Fair enough.
Most ISPs have said, in earnest (or not), that they support net neutrality. It’s simply the legal precedent they oppose. Well, that might be true. But we're reminded of The Scorpion and the Frog, and struggle to trust the intentions of any group that spends $42 million lobbying to Congress. Not that it matters.
While Wednesday's protests have made a grandiose mark, it’s only one small step. FCC chief Ajit Pai is not an elected official, so he doesn’t have to listen to voters (though as an ex-Verizon lawyer, questions linger as to his allegiances). And Mr. Pai has been gung-ho about reducing FCC regulations since he was nominated in 2012.
Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t raise your concerns — if you have them. Campaign director of Fight for the Future Evan Greer issued the following statement after the day of protest:
“This was a historic moment when the Internet is realizing it’s power — with massive amounts of creative activism spreading to every corner of the Internet, from the smallest and weirdest nooks and crannies of the web to the most popular websites on earth. And this doesn’t end today — this protest is the kickoff of a sustained campaign to keep the pressure on lawmakers and the FCC to do the right thing. This is just our opening salvo, and it’s a massive one.”
It’s almost impossible not to hear activists now. Let’s hope somebody listens to what they have to say.