Will Massive Net-Neutrality Protest Change the FCC’s Mind?

Activists argue that it’s happened before. But the agency’s insulation from voters, and the uncertain participation of some of the internet’s largest players, will make it a tough lift.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
July 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

On Wednesday, major tech companies and web platforms in the United States will team up with activists for what’s being billed as a watershed moment in the net-neutrality fight—a massive “Day of Action” opposing the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to undo the legal underpinning of rules prohibiting the blocking, throttling, or prioritization of web traffic.

The protest is slated to include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Reddit and virtually every other major web platform in America. It will be the largest online action of its kind since 2012, when a coalition of activists and top tech firms “blacked out” large swathes of the internet and channeled millions of angry comments to lawmakers supporting the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. The outcry killed both bills, which had been widely expected to pass, in a matter of days. Activists hope that a repeat performance Wednesday will similarly derail the net-neutrality rollback expected at the FCC this fall.

But that may be wishful thinking. It’s not yet clear how heavyweights Google and Facebook are planning to participate in the protest, and its overall impact will be muted if their support amounts to little more than lip service. More importantly, it’s unlikely that Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will be cowed by a public uprising the same way Congress was during the SOPA/PIPA fight.

If activists have their way, the millions of users who visit Google, Facebook, and any of the thousands of other participating sites will be confronted with faux “alerts” informing them that their experience is being slowed or blocked by their internet service provider. The alerts would direct users to send messages supportive of the FCC’s current utility-style regulation of internet providers to their members of Congress, as well as the FCC itself. Lawmakers were inundated with such messages during the SOPA/PIPA fight, and the flood of comments is widely believed to have prevented the legislation from moving forward.

But each website will participate as it sees fit Wednesday, and activists are concerned that Google and Facebook—both of which joined the Day of Action only late last week—may not choose to convert their tens of millions of daily users into angry commenters at the FCC and on Capitol Hill. While both companies have lobbied the FCC—through the D.C.-based Internet Association—to maintain its current net-neutrality rules, until now they’ve been hesitant to confront the issue directly. And neither will tell reporters or activists how they plan to protest Wednesday.

“These are companies with tremendous reach,” said Evan Greer, the campaign director for progressive tech advocacy group Fight for the Future and one of the chief architects of Wednesday’s protest. “They should use that ability to spread information to educate internet users about how this issue affects them and give them meaningful ways to take action. It’s great if they put out statements in support of net neutrality, but it would be much better if they stand up and fight along with the rest of the internet.”

Regardless of the how extensive the web giants’ participation turns out to be, activists still believe Wednesday will raise enough net-neutrality awareness—and cause enough headaches at the FCC and on the Hill—to push policymakers to reverse course in the same way the SOPA/PIPA protest did in 2012.

“I think [SOPA/PIPA is] really the closest analogy to this situation,” said Corynne McSherry, the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. While she doesn’t believe the turnaround will be quite as rapid as in 2012, she’s confident that increased pressure on the FCC and Congress will ultimately lead to the same outcome.

It’s less clear how internet users would influence the policymaking process this time around, however. Unelected FCC commissioners work within an independent federal agency, and are insulated from direct political pressure. And if Wednesday’s Day of Action is geared toward pushing the FCC to reconsider its net-neutrality proposal by flooding the commission’s site with comments, some doubt it’ll be particularly effective.

“The FCC is not designed to be receptive to a general audience,” said Tom Struble, tech-policy manager at the libertarian R Street Institute. “You could have 99 percent of the commenters at the FCC telling them to do one thing, and the FCC could still side with the 1 percent if they think the 1 percent of arguments is the better argument.”

Even if Wednesday’s protest is targeted at members of Congress, Struble thinks it’ll have little practical impact if the goal is to push Pai to change course. “[Lawmakers] have no control over what Pai and the FCC does—they’re an independent commission,” he said.

But Barbara van Schewick, a law professor and net-neutrality expert at Stanford University, believes that the FCC’s independence has its limits. “Chairman Pai is up for re-nomination,” she said, adding that Republican lawmakers were “burnt really badly” by their repeal of the commission’s impending internet-privacy rules earlier this year. “I think that has demonstrated to a lot of members that these are issues that their constituents care about passionately.”

And McSherry notes that FCC chairs have reversed course under public pressure before. Former Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler significantly beefed up his initial net-neutrality proposal from 2014 to 2015, following an outcry driven by HBO comedian John Oliver, a bit of urging from President Obama, and a smaller internet-centered protest. “A lot of people spoke up in many, many corners, and [Wheeler] changed his mind and did the right thing,” McSherry said.

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