On December 14, the day the Federal Communications Commission was set to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order, five members of the pro-net neutrality organization Fight for the Future were hunkered down at a cozy, flier-covered coworking space in Boston.
There are 10 full-time members of the organization, but it’s unusual for so many of them to be in one place. “We generally work remotely,” said campaign director Evan Greer. “We're spread out all over the country. But we're gathered here in Boston today just so we can be together and be able to work quickly together on this day when the vote is likely to happen.” Were they planning to watch the vote live? “I don’t know if we’re going to watch it,” she said. “We’re going to be focused on the next steps in actually fighting back and getting our work done. And you know, I can read what [FCC Chairman] Ajit Pai has to say later. I think we basically know what he’s going to say.”
The activists had known this vote was coming for months. Pai announced his intent to repeal net neutrality immediately after being appointed by President Trump. Still, the group contested every inch of the field. They organized hundreds of internet companies to add badges or loading icons or slow their traffic to show what the web could be like without net neutrality. Their website BattleForTheNet generated almost a million calls to members of Congress. In August, they crowdfunded billboards targeting anti-net neutrality lawmakers in six states. In the weeks leading up to the vote, an FCC commissioner, 28 senators, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman all called on the FCC to delay the vote. Only two days before the hearing, House Representative Mike Coffman became the first Republican member of Congress to ask the FCC to delay the vote.
The vote happened anyway. By a vote of three to two along party lines, the 2015 net neutrality order was repealed.
The fight, however, is just beginning. The telecom industry’s plan has always been a one-two punch: repeal net neutrality, spark a crisis, and then push through its own favorable legislation under the guise of preserving net neutrality. “They got the FCC to undo the rules but then, in order to kind of make that permanent, they want to use that as a pretext to get Congress to pass fake legislation to save net neutrality that is actually legislation that would undermine it permanently,” said Holmes Wilson, one of the cofounders of Fight for the Future.
The proxy for this argument is Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a staunch telecom ally who chairs the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee. On Tuesday, Blackburn introduced The Open Internet Preservation Act, which would prevent the FCC from making future rules around net neutrality. The consensus from net neutrality advocates is that the bill “does not meet the criteria for basic net neutrality protections,” in the words of Internet Association, the Silicon Valley group that includes Google and Facebook.
Net neutrality will either become a victory for grassroots power, or an example of policy diverging from public sentiment.
I asked Greer how she felt, seeing the vote go forward despite months of work to stop it. “I actually feel psyched because Ajit Pai and the telecoms that he's working for have created a crisis in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “What they're doing today is essentially irrelevant because they've sparked such outrage from across the political spectrum.”
There are a few ways that the FCC repeal is going to be challenged. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman said he will sue the FCC to stop the rollback of net neutrality, and other state attorneys general are expected to join him. But Fight for the Future is focused on trying to reverse the FCC’s decision in Congress. Under the Congressional Review Act of 1996, Congress can pass what’s called a “Resolution of Disapproval” to effectively block the FCC’s repeal of Net Neutrality. Already, Ed Markey and Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Mike Doyle in the House have said they will introduce a Resolution of Disapproval. This has to be voted on within 60 legislative working days, so that basically means they have until April. “We’re about to open up a serious internet-sized can of whoopass on Congress and make sure that they overturn this vote,” Greer said.
Fight for the Future started in 2011 after a bill called SOPA (and later, its successor PIPA) threatened to grant copyholders broad authority to remove content from the internet. Wilson and his cofounder, Tiffiniy Cheng, saw this as censorship. They seized the issue and started organizing around it online, where it got traction in places like Reddit. Members of Congress were flooded with calls over a law that was fully expected to pass without causing a fuss. Instead, the bills died.
The protests around SOPA and PIPA were supported by large companies including Google and Wikipedia, but their defeat was credited to grassroots organizing. Victories like these are heartening to see in the era of Citizens United, when the voice of the public often seems drowned out by the sound of money talking.
Net neutrality could either become another example of grassroots power, or it could remain an example of policy diverging from public sentiment. Repeated polling shows that support for net neutrality spans across party lines and that the more educated about net neutrality Americans are, the more they support it.
In a University of Maryland poll released the week of the vote, researchers took the time to explain both sides of the debate in neutral terms and found that 83 percent of Americans opposed repeal. The poll upheld findings in previous surveys that showed net neutrality is almost equally popular among Democrats (88 percent opposed repeal) and Republicans (75 percent opposed repeal). This was consistent with a June poll from Mozilla and Ipsos that showed 81 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans are in favor of net neutrality.
Some polls suggested that support for net neutrality has fallen. But despite the media offensive and the attempt by Pai and some Republicans in Congress to make net neutrality into a partisan issue, a Morning Consult poll found that 55 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans still supported net neutrality at the end of November.
Meanwhile, the opponents of net neutrality are incredibly unpopular. The anti-net neutrality lobby is led by Comcast, a cable monopoly that would be considered thuggish if it weren’t so doddering. Comcast was named the “Worst Company in America” in 2010 and 2014 by Consumerist. It consistently ranks at the bottom of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, where it underperformed even relative to the rest of the poorly-rated telecom industry. “Internet service providers remain unchanged at the bottom of the ACSI industry rankings at a score of 64,” out of 100, according to an ACSI report released in May. “Low user satisfaction is the result of slow and unreliable service, compounded by limited competition.”
The newest ally in the anti-net neutrality coalition is the alt-right media, which has decided that being anti-net neutrality is a way to continue taking digs at Obama and also attack left-leaning Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Most notably, Pai teamed up with The Daily Caller to make a video in which he mocked net neutrality as unnecessary because “you can still Instagram your food.” Rep. Blackburn has tried to shift the debate to Facebook and Google, claiming that their control over their own platforms is what needs to be regulated. “These companies want to control what you think, what you read, prioritization – look at how Google prioritizes search,” she told Breitbart.
But opposition to net neutrality isn’t really going to hurt Facebook, Google, or Twitter. Its strongest effects will be to benefit Comcast and other telecom monopolies, which now also own content businesses that they could vertically promote (imagine Comcast giving you free access to MSNBC, but making you pay for Fox; or Verizon letting customers visit its subsidiaries of Yahoo and Tumblr without those websites counting against their data cap). These companies are all wildly unpopular, known for mistreating customers, providing shoddy service, and reneging on deals to promote access. The fact that a coalition led by the most unpopular companies in America was able to squash a policy with 83 percent approval suggests something about our representative democracy is not working. Does grassroots activism stand a chance against Verizon, AT&T, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, all of which are in the top 20 spenders according to the Open Secrets lobbying spending database? “I haven’t had time to think about whether or not it's going to work,” Cheng said. “It just has to happen. That's my honest answer.”