Inside the Opposition to a Net Neutrality Repeal
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- December 8th, 2017
WORCESTER, Mass. — Hundreds of protests were staged across the country on Thursday in the latest uproar over a repeal of rules ensuring an open internet. The drumbeat of action can in good part be traced back to a yellow Victorian house in this leafy New England city.
The home is the nerve center for Fight for the Future, a scrappy 10-person nonprofit that has helped lead the opposition to the change — even if its effort to protect so-called net neutrality has the longest of odds.
For months, the founders, Tiffiniy Cheng and Holmes Wilson, have pushed the group’s 1.8 million supporters to flood social media sites with warnings about how the change could favor big companies and hurt smaller ones. They have also supplied online tools to their followers, like one that makes it easier to call lawmakers and another to file comments directly to the Federal Communications Commission, the agency considering the repeal.
For next week, just ahead of the agency’s vote on the proposal, they have organized hundreds of internet companies to alter their websites — slowing them down, for example — to show what online experiences could be like without the rules.
“We believe people care about this enough to take a stand,” Ms. Cheng, 37, said while sitting inside the house, nearly surrounded in a tiny office by bookshelves stocked with medieval literature.
Their efforts may seem quixotic. Fight for the Future is trying to stop the chairman of the F.C.C., Ajit Pai, from dismantling rules that prevent internet service providers from blocking websites or charging them for faster delivery to consumers. The group argues that the policy, passed in 2015 under the Obama administration and with a groundswell of support, helps protect free speech and expression online.
But Mr. Pai and his two Republican colleagues have committed to passing the proposal at the agency’s meeting next Thursday, in what would be a 3-to-2 party-line vote. Mr. Pai, who was nominated as chairman by President Trump, has said that the rules are unnecessary and that market forces would prevent internet service providers, like AT&T and Verizon, from blocking or slowing sites.
Some of the largest tech companies, like Google and Facebook, have been relatively quiet about the rollback of rules, even though they were vocal supporters of them in the past. At a conference this year, Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, said, “I think Trump’s F.C.C. is going to unwind the rules no matter what anybody says.”
But Fight for the Future and other grass-roots groups they are working with, including Free Press and Demand Progress, say the battle is only really beginning. They are focused on pressuring the F.C.C. through Congress, which oversees the F.C.C. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill could also pass a bill to establish the net neutrality rules.
“We want to raise the political costs on this issue,” Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, said. “We want members of Congress to think of this as a third-rail issue that they have to support or else they will suffer in their elections.”
The protests on Thursday mostly took place outside stores run by Verizon, where Mr. Pai used to work as a lawyer. At a strip mall in Shoreline, Wash., just north of Seattle, about 18 protesters turned up on a cold, sunny morning outside a Verizon store between a Costco and a teriyaki restaurant.
Shasta Willson, a web developer who lives in Shoreline, said she ran a small literature publishing business and was concerned that the loss of net neutrality could turn the internet into something more like cable television, where access to certain online services are sold as part of content packages.
“I feel like this is the most important issue going on,” she said. “There’s some crazy stuff going on, but if we lose net neutrality you might not hear about any of it.”
In the shadow of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan, 15 to 20 protesters chanted, “Save the net” and “Free speech, equal access.” Although demonstrators said they knew the rule change would almost certainly happen next week, they were hopeful that their actions could generate enough last-minute attention to bring about a reversal.
“I’m afraid it’s a rear-guard action,” one of the protesters, Maxine Rockoff, 79, said. “But I hope if we protest across the country, the folks in Congress will recognize it was a bad decision.”
Fight for the Future was started in 2011 by Ms. Cheng and Mr. Holmes, friends from a math and science high school in Worcester. The two initially got $800,000 in seed funding from the Media Democracy Fund, a grant organization focused on media and telecommunication issues, to fight a bill meant to stop the piracy of movies and music online.
The friends, who had long fought for artists’ rights and free-speech issues, saw the bill, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, as a way for big Hollywood studios to control the internet. They helped organize online protests, coordinating with hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, which went offline at the same time and raised broad awareness of action in Washington on an arcane legislative issue. The bipartisan bill, widely expected to pass, was killed after a public outcry.
In 2015, the group used many of the same tactics to support the net neutrality rules that were passed.
“They were so creative and brought something totally different to activism,” said Marvin Ammori, the general counsel for Hyperloop One, a high-speed transportation start-up, and a board member of Fight for the Future.
Fight for the Future is now has an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, a chief technology officer and staff dispersed around the globe. The Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation, venture capitalists such as Brad Feld of Foundry Group and entrepreneurs like Craig Newmark of Craigslist.org support the group financially.
The group does not take money from the biggest tech companies. Its biggest Silicon Valley donors include the search engine DuckDuckGo, which donated $25,000, and the reviews site Yelp, which donated $10,000 last year.
Of the 23 million comments filed to the F.C.C. about net neutrality this year, two million were through a site that Fight for the Future helped run. The group said its tools allowed people to make more than 800,000 calls to Congress and 6.7 million emails to lawmakers.
The potential repeal outraged Lesley Perg, a 44-year-old adult education instructor in St. Paul. She heard of Mr. Pai’s plan in July and submitted her name, email and phone number to BattlefortheNet.com, a site run by Fight for the Future and its partners to see how she could fight back. She is among more than 1,500 volunteers, and for weeks she has put in four to eight hours a week in training organizers of demonstrations and congressional office visits.
“Net neutrality underlies everything I care about,” said Ms. Perg, an avid knitter who is deeply involved with knitting communities online. “Even though Pai has three votes, we need to put Congress in a tough spot and to prepare for this to go to the courts. This is a long game.”
The group’s approach has also attracted criticism.
In August, Fight for the Future and the other groups put up billboards in the districts of three Republican House leaders that said the lawmakers had sold out to big internet service providers with their support of the F.C.C. plan. The three were Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who heads a communications subcommittee; Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader; and Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.
“I think it is really unfortunate that this issue has been politicized,” said Dan Lyons, an associate professor at the Boston College Law School. “This is a dry admin law debate: Is antitrust sufficient to control broadband providers and, if not, will additional prophylactic rules do more harm than good to innovation?”
In an interview, Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner at the F.C.C., said, “There is a lot of misinformation out there.”
Evan Greer, a director for Fight for the Future, said that to get members of Congress to speak out in favor of the issue, the group needed to deploy a range of efforts to make the government officials uncomfortable.
“Backlash is our middle name,” she said.
Last week, as Mr. Pai was giving speeches that mocked celebrities like Cher and Alyssa Milano for criticizing his proposal, the group was gearing up for a big online protest set for just before the vote. It needed to make net neutrality something that millions more Americans could care about.
On a Google hangout, its leaders, designers and political directors were in a heated debate about their protest slogan. Even minute details, like the font they would use and the color on a banner meant to be shared on sites like Twitter and Facebook, drew pointed discussion.
Even after several years promoting net neutrality, it was clear that their enthusiasm was undiminished. One design lit up Ms. Cheng.
The design, she exclaimed, made her think: “We can stop the F.C.C.!”