The FCC’s plan to announce a straight repeal of net neutrality protections over a major US holiday weekend appears to have backfired.
Communities across the internet are livid; 12 of the top 16 posts on Reddit’s r/all have to do with net neutrality as does most of the front page of Imgur. The New York Times story about the plan to repeal the protections was “leading the home page all day,” according to Times reporter Cecilia Kang, and pro-net neutrality nonprofit BattleForTheNet.com says that in the past 24 hours, more than 200,000 people have used the site to call Congress to protest the decision.
“The internet is on fire,” Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future said in an emailed statement. “In my entire life as an internet activist I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Redditors are currently organizing a protest in Washington DC in front of the FCC headquarters on December 13, a day before the FCC is set to formally repeal net neutrality protections. Previous net neutrality protests have been small but effective; in 2014, a few dozen people holding protest signs in New York City and Washington DC have given journalists stock art that has been used for years’ worth of stories about the seemingly never-ending battle for the net. Those early protests and call / comment campaigns succeeded in getting former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to protect net neutrality.
But it does feel like this time, net neutrality has become a household issue, perhaps because a straight repeal of the rules by the FCC feels like a mere formality at this point: Doing away with the regulations is something FCC chairman Ajit Pai has long promised, and with Republicans in control of every branch of government (including the FCC, which is really all that matters at this point), it does feel like we’re about to formally lose the protections. Many Motherboard writers and editors went home to visit their families for Thanksgiving today, and many of us were greeted with outrage from our families about the news that the internet is under severe threat.
It seems possible, then, that instead of letting a net neutrality repeal slip by unnoticed while we stuff our faces with turkey and stuffing, it will become the main topic of political conversation at Thanksgiving dinners around the country. Trump isn’t nearly as controversial as he was last year—with a 38.4 percent approval rating he’s just widely disliked—so maybe this year’s Thanksgiving conversations will pivot quickly from him to a wonky regulatory policy that has often been ignored as a dining table issue.
It is worth noting that big telecom has generally eroded or ignored many of the regulations under the Trump’s FCC, which is responsible for actually enforcing them. Zero-rating—where certain services don’t count as “data” that pushes toward a customer’s monthly data cap—is rampant among both wired and wireless internet providers, which Wheeler said violates the regulations. We don’t really have net neutrality today, and it’s going to take a strong, consumer-focused FCC or a fundamental revolution in how we actually access the internet to actually protect us.
In the 24 hours since I promised that Motherboard would begin work on a series of guides and articles explaining how to create an ISP, dozens of people have reached out to me to express interest in helping to build new internet infrastructure that is owned by the people it serves. That excitement is great to see.
As long as big telecom has stacks of cash to throw at politicians, net neutrality will never be safe. But perhaps widespread outrage about repealing regulations that are both fundamental to the open internet and wildly popular on both sides of the political spectrum can buy us enough time to build something better.