Net Neutrality Hits a Nerve, Eliciting Intense Reactions

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Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which has proposed repealing landmark regulations meant to ensure an open internet. Credit Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg Photo by: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — It usually doesn’t take much to get people on the internet worked up. To get them really worked up, make the topic internet regulation.

In the week since the Federal Communications Commission released a plan to scrap existing rules for internet delivery, more than 200,000 phone calls, organized through online campaigns, have been placed to Congress in protest. An additional 500,000 comments have been left on the agency’s website. On social media sites like Twitter and Reddit, the issue has been a leading topic of discussion.

In some cases, views on the sweeping change, which would repeal landmark regulations meant to ensure an open internet, have turned into personal attacks. The agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, said threatening calls and emails had poured into his home and his wife’s work. An image of a protest poster with his children’s names was posted online and spread widely. Ethnic slurs aimed at Mr. Pai, whose parents immigrated from India, littered his Twitter feed.

There are also echoes of the 2016 presidential election, with accusations that not all of the reaction is coming from Americans. The federal agency is for the first time dealing with a powerful technology foe as automated software, known as bots, appears to have sent many comments to the site, according to data researchers.

And at least 400,000 comments about the issue since April on the F.C.C. site appear to have originated from an apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, the agency said. It is unclear whether the emails did originate from there, or were made to look as if they did.

But none of that has overshadowed the heated reaction to the agency’s proposal.

“There doesn’t seem to be middle ground on this issue,” said John Beahn, a lawyer at Skadden Arps who specializes in regulation.

At the center of the debate is whether telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon should be able to charge internet sites for delivering their data to consumers’ homes. In 2015, the F.C.C. voted to prohibit those charges, in a policy often called net neutrality.

But Mr. Pai, a Republican nominated for the chairmanship by President Trump, said the regulations were heavy-handed and prevented telecom companies from pursuing new business models. His proposal, by stripping away the existing rules, would allow telecom companies to charge websites to deliver their data at higher speeds.

In a speech on Tuesday, Mr. Pai addressed some of the concerns that have been voiced since he released his proposal, pointing specifically to comments by celebrities like Cher and Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley.” He said their tweets warning that his rules would lead to authoritarianism and a handout to big cable companies were “utterly absurd.”

“I’d like to cut through hysteria and hot air and speak in plain terms about the plan,” Mr. Pai said, adding that the plan would bring back the regulation-free policy that helped the internet thrive. He said big tech companies might be a bigger threat to online speech than telecom companies.

The proposal is expected to be approved at a meeting of the five F.C.C. commissioners on Dec. 14. The two other Republican commissioners have already expressed their support for Mr. Pai.

The 2015 rules also elicited strong interest. The F.C.C. site was overwhelmed with comments after a monologue from the late-night host John Oliver went viral online. Some people who wanted the stronger rules blocked the driveway of the chairman at the time, Tom Wheeler, to try to persuade him to change the agency’s plan.

Big web companies like Google and Netflix played activist roles as well, supporting the stronger rules. They argued that telecom companies should not be able to split sites into fast lanes and slow lanes, because that would allow them to become a sort of gatekeeper for information and entertainment. In addition, they say, it would hurt start-ups without the money to pay for the faster lanes.

Mr. Pai, who opposed the rules as a commissioner in 2015, gave broad outlines of his plans early this year. For months, comments to the F.C.C. website piled up, to more than 20 million. President Barack Obama’s clean power plan, perhaps his biggest policy change at the Environmental Protection Agency, attracted 4.3 million comments over six months.

But the intensity has increased even more since Mr. Pai released the details of the proposal — perhaps in part because few people expected him to try to strip all of the existing rules.

“We never expected this,” wrote Craig Moffett, an analyst at the research firm MoffettNathanson.

Lawmakers, celebrities, founders of start-ups and consumers have continued to hash out the debate into this week.

Conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the Competitive Enterprise Institute praised the rollback. The radio host Rush Limbaugh defended Mr. Pai’s plan on Monday in an online post. He dismissed concerns by supporters of the rules, whom he described as liberal “millennials and tech bloggers.”

“What the tech bloggers and the left don’t like is that there are options and that there is a freedom in the marketplace and that people can choose superior service if they’re willing to pay for it,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “And if somebody’s willing to pay for superior service, the providers had better provide it.”

Public interest groups like Free Press and organizations like Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the popular Firefox browser, said they were prepared to file suit against the plan as soon as the vote on Dec. 14.

“The action hit a nerve because the internet is central to the vast majority of people’s daily lives, and so people were very eager to understand what was happening over the weekend,” said Denelle Dixon, chief legal officer for Mozilla.

The reaction from the biggest tech companies, however, has been noticeably subdued. Instead of forceful pleas from their executives, like those in years past on this issue, they are largely speaking through their trade group, the Internet Association, which has expressed disappointment over Mr. Pai’s plan.

“Internet companies are firm supporters of the 2015 Open Internet Order and will continue our push for strong, enforceable net neutrality rules going forward,” said Noah Theran, a spokesman for the Internet Association. “We are reviewing the draft order and weighing our legal options.”

Taking their place are start-ups such as Airbnb, Twitter and Reddit, which joined dozens of smaller start-ups on Monday warning Mr. Pai that the rules would hurt innovation and the economy.

Sorting out the real individual commenters from fake or automated accounts is far more tricky. The F.C.C. said it did not have the resources to investigate every comment on its site.

Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, said that after a six-month investigation, his office had found that the identities of tens of thousands of state residents were fraudulently used to post comments to the F.C.C.

“If law enforcement can’t investigate and (where appropriate) prosecute when it happens on this scale,” Mr. Schneiderman said, “the door is open for it to happen again and again.”

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