This morning, the Federal Communications Commission voted to guarantee the open Internet through so-called net neutrality rules, and with it, forged ahead with one of the biggest policy accomplishments of the Obama administration.
“This is probably the most important ruling in the history of the FCC,” says Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press.
Net neutrality, a principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally, was a founding concept for the web. But many Internet service providers have attempted to change that. Cell phone companies have attempted to block apps that could compete with their services and cable companies have pressed for paid prioritization, seeking extra income by forcing users to pay for faster connections to select websites.
For Internet start-ups and political activists alike, the efforts by the ISP industry to move away from net neutrality represented a transformation of the Internet, from a place in which all voices were equal to a world of big incumbent websites and corporate media-dominated information sources. “The question came down to, who ultimately controls this Internet? Is it going to be these powerful corporations?” says Karr.
And only a year ago, prospects for protecting net neutrality seemed doomed. The Internet service provider industry, including companies such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable, had lobbied furiously against the rule, spending tens of millions on lobbying and on so-called “astroturf” efforts to pay third party groups to support their position. In January of 2014, a federal court struck down a previous iteration of the open Internet rules after Verizon filed suit. And shortly thereafter, the newly installed FCC chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable and cell phone lobbyist, began moving forward with a plan that would allow broadband providers to create Internet fast lanes and slow lanes.
Now, with the FCC voting to reclassify Internet access providers under Title II of the Communications Act, net neutrality rules are stronger than ever. The credit for such a seachange, say activists who agitated for the decision, belongs to a mix of online and traditional activism.
The victory comes after a scrappy, underdog campaign. Pro-net neutrality protesters made headlines by storming hearings, confronting Wheeler at public events, and carrying out a string of stunts designed to raise public awareness.
Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice, stresses that the strength of the net neutrality movement relied on the diversity of its coalition. She says Color of Change, National Hispanic Media Coalition, immigrant rights’ groups, activists from Black Lives Matter and communities of color “took it to the streets, to the doorstep of the ISPs.”
“What happened? The people happened, organizing happened,” Cyril says.
Karr, who has worked on net neutrality advocacy for over a decade, also emphasized the role of a large coalition, “from librarians to free speech advocates,” with a shared interest in Internet freedom. “It also took a host of different tactics,” he says. “Protests in Philadelphia, protests in San Francisco, people making videos on YouTube — not coordinating in some centralized fashion, but many groups using their own creative strength and reaching out to their own constituents around this goal of convincing the FCC to reclassify Internet access providers under Title II.”
David Segal, co-founder of Demand Progress, notes confrontational tactics also made a difference. “Once it became clear that the grassroots were demanding Title II and the strongest rules possible, politicians and companies started sticking their necks out and helped propel Americans forward.”
What makes net neutrality different from many other policy debates is that the medium in which people learned about the issue was the very thing being threatened, says Segal.
“People on the Internet care about the wellbeing of the Internet,” he observed. “It’s very easy to remind people that the sites they’re reading might be disrupted.” And from an organizing point of view, using sites such as Tumblr or Reddit as a platform was critical for spreading the message.
Other developments also helped shift the debate. HBO host John Oliver mobilized his viewers to flood the FCC with more than 45,000 comments in support of reclassification. A number of websites also participated in the “Internet Slowdown Day,” a protest to call attention to what might happen under paid prioritization without strong net neutrality.
Much ink has been spilled over the tactics around major policy debates of the Obama years. For many critics, the top-down approach favored by the administration has doomed many of the president’s own priorities.
Harvard professor Theda Skocpol pins the blame for the failure to pass major climate change legislation on “CEOs and Big Enviro honchos” who eschewed grassroots organizing in favor of backroom deals. She notes that the proponents of climate change legislation used an “insider-grand bargaining political style that, unbeknownst to its sponsors, was unlikely to succeed given fast-changing realities in US partisan politics and governing institutions.”
Following Obama’s first election win in 2008, the president retired his grassroots “Organizing for America” army of volunteers into a wing of the Democratic National Committee, and reportedly pressured activist groups not to publicly criticize his administration.
The past year of organizing around net neutrality defied this strategy.
To be sure, telephone and Internet companies are likely to try to undermine the rules that were voted on today. Earlier this week, former FCC chair and current cable industry lobbyist Michael Powell pledged legal action against reclassification. Another route would be for congressional allies of the industry to try to revoke FCC authority through the appropriations process or through a major rewrite of the Telecommunications Act.
Still, activists have been celebrating.
“The lawyers on our team say the Title II jurisdiction is the one with the most solid grounding so we’re hopeful that we’ll stand in court,” says Segal.
Plus, “there are some signals that morale is very low on the other side,” he adds, referring to a New York Times article that suggests even the ISP industry’s strong allies in Congress may give up the fight.
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