Internet activists are hunkered down today, meeting with major tech companies, startups, venture capitalists, and organizations representing communities of color in preparation for a coordinated response to counter the Federal Communications Commission's proposed new rules that could destroy net neutrality.
The proposed FCC regulations, first reported yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, would allow broadband providers to essentially act as gatekeepers and charge websites fees in order to reach customers through a data "fast lane." This is the antithesis of net neutrality, which states that all traffic is to be treated equally. In short, net neutrality is an assurance that internet providers can't favor one kind of traffic over another, or charge for access to certain parts of the internet. According to activists, yesterday's reports signal a hard end to that practice as well as the open internet (FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler attacked the reports in a blog post, saying that "the allegation that it will result in anti-competitive price increases for consumers is also unfounded").
The news has web activists are worried. And they're mobilizing.
"Net Neutrality is on life support," Free Press' Josh Levy wrote this afternoon in a joint Reddit AMA on the subject. As of this afternoon, it's the top post on Reddit's front page with over 5,000 upvotes, a signal that the news seems to have hit a nerve online and that frustration with the FCC is beginning to bleed into the mainstream.
"People like to say that the thing about net neutrality is 'it's complicated' but a lot of people actually get it," Levy told BuzzFeed. "The FCC responded to this in a way that's totally shitty and it's given people who didn't know where to direct their anger something to hook their emotions on. That's why we're seeing so much more outrage than back in January [when federal courts struck down the FCC's 2010 Open Internet rules] — it's more concrete. The challenge isn't so much to get more people aware right now; the bigger challenge is to harness the energy of people who are aware," he said.
Public Knowledge Vice President Michael Weinberg also confirmed that the wheels are already in motion in Washington. "To the extent that there is good news, here it's that while this is a very bad rule, it's not a done deal yet," he said. Weinberg said May 15, the day the FCC's proposal goes out for public comment, will be a pivotal moment. "On the 15th there really is an opportunity for every internet stakeholder to weigh in and make it crystal clear that this is not the rule we need," Weinberg said.
"You're going to see out of groups like Public Knowledge delivering a lot of pushback around May 15 aimed at the FCC, Congress, and the administration to basically say that you can't argue you're in favor of net neutrality and propose these rules." Weinberg stressed that broad participation will be key. "The caveat, here is that we really need to hear from all people. This is not one of those things where you can hope that somebody else will fight the battle for you. They're going to need to hear from everyone."
"We are planning to take this energy build toward a moment for a day of action on May 15, when the FCC holds its open meeting," Levy old BuzzFeed. "Right now we are working with a lot of the tech companies, none of whom are saying anything publicly at the moment but I think that'll change soon. They're outraged and ready to take action in a big way," he said.
Already, there's been a desire to compare the net neutrality activism to 2012's Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), which resulted in a massive and successful but disorganized lobbying effort by America's largest tech companies. Activists seem to be hesitant to make the comparison right now so as not to lull grassroots elements into a false sense of security. "That was a once in a lifetime moment and now I want to create another one. It's not helpful to create those kinds of comparisons," one open internet activist told BuzzFeed.
While it's still early, net neutrality advocates are heartened by the initial response to the FCC proposal news. That said, sights appear to be firmly set on the FCC's open meeting. "You should be in Washington on May 15," one open internet advocate said. "I know there are going to be actions on the ground. Hopefully, it'll be widespread."