Silicon Valley’s finest hour in politics came in 2014 when leading tech companies launched a monthslong offensive that pushed the Federal Communications Commission to set firm rules preserving net neutrality, the principle that internet providers can’t favor certain services or content over others.
On Wednesday, under a new, far less friendly FCC chair, they’re preparing to do it all over again, and this time they’ll need major grassroots support. Tech heavyweights Netflix, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook, Google and others are participating in what’s being called a “Day of Action” to save net neutrality — through a mix of push notifications, videos, press briefings in Washington, and calls for Americans to tell the FCC to keep open-internet regulations in place. The comments period ends Aug. 17.
It’s hard to overstate how different things are now from three years ago. With Republicans controlling Congress and the executive branch, and a hostile FCC chair, strong grassroots pressure is the only hope for preserving strong net neutrality regulation. Under the previous administration, there was at least a sympathetic ear if not always highly supportive action.
But Ajit Pai, the FCC chair tapped by Donald Trump in January, has long been critical of the 2015 decision by his predecessor, Tom Wheeler, to regulate internet providers as utilities, under what’s called Title II classification. For months, Pai has been denigrating that decision, and he formally took the first step toward overturning it in mid-May.
Pai and his allies in the telecom industry (Pai is a former lawyer for Verizon) argue that the Title II designation is onerous and outdated. They argue that ensuring an “open internet” is a job best left up to the Federal Trade Commission, which should enforce violations of open internet “principles” agreed to by telecoms under a “light touch” regulatory regime.
“It’s under that light-touch framework that the companies like Google, like Facebook, like Netflix were able to become globally known names,” Pai said in a late April interview with PBS.
With the Republicans in power, Pai’s expected 2-1 majority among Commissioners, and $572 million in telecom lobbying dollars spent since 2008, there’s little to block the removal of the Title II designation – although the political price for the GOP could be steep.
One Washington consultant who has represented pro-Title II Silicon Valley heavyweights (and was not authorized to speak on the record by those clients) noted that Washington has gotten sensitive in recent years to the power of pro–open internet grassroots activists. A recent example: Unexpected activist pressure nearly killed a March bill allowing internet providers to sell user information to advertisers.
“In the last four years, most congressmen have been very scared to weigh in on internet-related stuff,” the consultant said. “If [the Wednesday Day of Action] is a big deal — does this continue that nervousness, especially if you want a compromise position? That’s a risky thing if the activist groups remain powerful.”
Amid all of Pai’s tough talk about killing Title II, a quiet worry among progressive activists and industry experts was that Silicon Valley might choose to sit this battle out, in spite of the broad public support pro-Title II activists enjoy.
Netflix was one of the leading pro-net neutrality advocates in 2014, and its CEO, Reed Hastings, was hitting the airwaves and writing open letters describing a world where consumers’ speeds were throttled for using services like Netflix instead of those favored by the internet service providers.
Since then, Netflix’s market position in video has become even more dominant, making it difficult for ISPs to justify angering customers by potentially throttling Netflix speeds.
Netflix added over 15 million more paid subscribers in the U.S. between 2014 and today (for a total of about 49.4 million), and it began offering the Netflix app straight from Comcast cable boxes in late 2016. Speaking at a tech conference in late May, Hastings told the investor- and executive-heavy crowd that net neutrality is “no longer our primary battle at this point.”
Within a couple weeks, however, Netflix came out swinging after sustained backlash from users and activists, saying that of course the company was fully behind the fight to preserve Title II and that it would be participating in the Day of Action.
“Netflix has such a huge user base of subscribers that if one of the ISPs throttled Netflix and degraded quality, that would likely harm the ISP’s business at the end of the day,” said Micheal Cheah, general counsel for the web video network Vimeo, which is owned by the media conglomerate IAC and is participating in the Day of Action. “Whereas a smaller video player or streaming service… that suddenly gets degraded and people don’t understand why, they will simply not use that service, and that platform will wither and die.”
Cheah added, however, that Netflix has been a “great partner” in the net neutrality fight. In a statement, Netflix spokesperson Bao-Viet Nguyen said that “we support strong net neutrality protections, even if we are at less risk because of our popularity.” Nguyen also pointed to the Day of Action videos, articles, and activism of the Internet Association, the trade association for Silicon Valley’s biggest players (including Netflix).
Evan Greer, an activist helping to coordinate the Day of Action who worked on the last net neutrality fight, told VICE News she thinks their fight is actually easier this time and that the smaller firms and groups are more important than the tech heavyweights.
“Five to six years ago, we were starting from scratch. Now we have a language to talk about this and understand how the internet can flex its muscles,” Greer said. “The [big tech companies] join onto momentum created by small and medium players and activists who lay the foundation.”
A key item to watch for on the Day of Action, and after, is the number of pro-Title II comments that are submitted to the FCC. The vast majority of the almost 4 million comments submitted during the 2014 fight were in favor of strong net neutrality regulation, which former FCC officials have said strongly influenced the agency’s ultimate decision.
This time around, over 50,000 comments critical of Title II have already been left by bots. And a failure of the comment submission system in early May drew criticism from activists and U.S. senators such as Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Hawaii’s Brian Schatz (both Democrats).
“It is critical to the rulemaking and regulatory process that the public be able to take part without unnecessary technical or administrative burden,” the two wrote in a letter to the FCC on July 7. “The FCC must be able to accept all comments filed to ensure that all voices are heard.”