The Internet as we know it will permanently change if new rules proposed this week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allow Comcast or AT&T to create a “fast lane” on the Web for companies that pay a fee. Content providers who buy off telecoms for faster speeds would simply outmuscle their counterparts, stifling innovation from startups that can’t afford to compete. If my local McDonald’s opened a special lane to their register that was closed to all competing traffic, while reaching the Burger King down the street required hacking through a mile of jungle, I’ll probably just get a Big Mac instead of a Whopper.
The FCC had to act, because of an appellate court ruling in January blocking their previous open Internet rules. But net neutrality advocates wanted the agency to reclassify broadband Internet as a common carrier service, as they do with telephones, preventing discrimination on whatever passes through the pipe. Instead, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, opted for an alternative that will enrich Internet service providers (ISPs) and lead to a permanent digital divide. Wheeler’s justification, that no content would face discrimination, but telecoms can charge for faster service, has been roundly criticized, and with good reason. But will anyone be able to mobilize against the powerful interests pushing through the proposed rules?
There’s a recent precedent for Internet-based mobilization actually bringing down a corporate giveaway that initially looked inevitable. In 2011, Congress appeared close to sneaking through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) just before the Christmas holidays. The bill would have empowered the government to compel ISPs to shut down websites based on subjective audio or video copyright claims. It was a giant wet kiss to the movie and music industries, a bill that would have effectively eliminated user-generated content on the Web (could Facebook be expected to police their entire site minute-by-minute for copyright infringement?) and allowed media conglomerates to take over. You won’t be surprised that the staffers in House Judiciary Committee chair Lamar Smith’s office who wrote the bill left right afterward to become entertainment industry lobbyists.
But the Internet, in a coordinated pushback, beat SOPA, amid virtual silence from broadcast media, whose parent companies supported the bill. Web users of all political stripes bombarded Congress. At one point, Tumblr announced they were generating 3.6 calls per second. On January 18, 2012, hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia, participated in the largest Internet strike in history, redacting their content and posting links to help people register constituent complaints. Lawmakers walked away from the bill in droves; in the end, it never even got a vote.
The net neutrality fight shares some common elements with the SOPA battle. The universe of people affected—everyone who uses the Internet—is sufficiently big to enable a mass coalition. Demand Progress, a group active in the SOPA fight, has already begun to mobilize in conjunction with RootsAction, gathering 26,000 signatures on a petition in a matter of hours.
But the SOPA fight was truly trans-partisan, as conservatives made common cause with progressives against censorship of their websites. That potential doesn’t exist on net neutrality, as Republicans have rejected what they consider government regulation of the Internet. So the fight already begins with a narrower base. In addition, it’s easier to target individual members of Congress over proposed legislation, than rules from independent regulatory agencies (although, considering that the Obama Administration reaffirmed their commitment to net neutrality just two months ago, activists can try to hold them accountable).
Most important, net neutrality advocates likely need buy-in from corporate America. In a recent political science study, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern found that economic elites and organized business interests can have significant impact over public policy, while ordinary citizens just don’t. When the government acts in the interest of citizens at all, it’s often an accidental by-product of public preferences coincidentally matching those of business groups.
Many took this study to mean that the United States now functionally operates as an oligarchy rather than a democracy. It may actually mean that in America, citizens are typically disorganized on most public policy questions, particularly in an age of labor union decline, but can reverse that through mass organizing. Whatever your perspective, the SOPA fight offers a perfect case study. That effort really took off when Google, Reddit, and other major websites decided to join the fight, counterbalancing pressure on the other side from Hollywood. Tech giants knew that their businesses would be damaged by onerous copyright restrictions. The public interest and the interests of at least one set of elites aligned.
It’s not yet clear whether the same coalition will materialize to fight the FCC. The larger incumbent content providers, like Yahoo and Google, may well like paying for a faster Internet pipe, because it narrows competition to those who are already established. Netflix has already started paying for priority speeds, in a deal with Comcast for better back-end transit. In addition, Google is both a content producer and, through Google Fiber, an Internet service provider, and can reap profits by charging tolls for their fast lane. The company has been veering away from net neutrality for quite some time. Notably, the Internet Association, a coalition featuring Google, eBay, Netflix and other tech bigwigs, has said nothing about the FCC’s proposed rules yet, despite nominally supporting net neutrality. Google did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
This transformation by Google and others is common. As formerly upstart companies mature, they suddenly grow comfortable with regulations that favor incumbency—as long as they’re the incumbents. For a movement-based response to the FCC to succeed, activists must peel off companies willing to stay true to their word, and essentially rebuild a new corporate coalition that can engage their user base.
Netflix seems like an obvious choice. Despite their previous dealings, the streaming video giant has lashed out against Comcast for “arbitrary interconnection tolls,” and publicly opposed the merger between Comcast and Time Warner. Surely Netflix executives understand that a telecom industry freed to charge for faster broadband speeds will be able to raise prices over the years, and gouge incumbents. Netflix can go along with the arms race, or help to end it before it begins. Their leadership will attract smaller Internet players that can take more risks, because a pay-to-play Internet really does threaten their survival.
In this case, you can easily recognize the seeds of mass mobilization, which may provide enough political cover for a Netflix or Twitter to act. Tech communities with big audiences have responded to the FCC announcement with outrage. People intuitively know and resist the concentration of power controlling the tools they use every day. Several Democrats have criticized the proposal, from Cory Booker to Bernie Sanders to Nancy Pelosi, who actually urged people to contact the FCC with their criticisms. The ferocity of the backlash may have rocked the FCC back on their heels a bit, but time is short, with a May 15 meeting to move forward on the proposal looming.
But the sad fact of modern political life is that democratic action requires more than mere expressions of dissent, or the expectation that politicians who share our tribal sympathies will work on our behalf. To reach the critical mass necessary to succeed, savvy political organizing in the 21st century now includes convincing the business sector to recognize their interests and when they’re imperiled.