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Net Neutrality ‘Day of Action’: What to Expect

Variety logo Variety 7/12/2017 Ted Johnson

Thousands of Internet sites, public interest groups and activists will once again stage an online protest on Wednesday, this time over the future of the FCC’s net neutrality rules.

Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, Reddit and Snapchat are among the major Internet companies taking part in the event. According to Fight for the Future, one of the organizers of the protest, many sites will be displaying an alert on their homepage that will try to give users a feel for what the Internet would be like without net neutrality.

Some of the graphics include faux messages like, “Sorry, we’re stuck in the slow lane,” and “Please upgrade your plan to proceed.” Most will direct users to a link to contact the FCC and Congress, but there also will be efforts to spread messages across social media and on individual sites.

Will it work?

It sure did in 2012, when major Internet providers staged a “blackout” to protest proposed anti-piracy legislation, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act. The protest triggered a massive backlash, as millions called Congress before the bill was eventually scuttled.

On Sept. 10, 2014, many of the same companies and activists staged “Internet Slowdown Day,” promoted with a spinning wheel that signifies a slowing time to access sites, as a way to press the FCC to pass a robust set of net neutrality rules. That is what they did the next year, when the commission voted 3-2 to reclassify the Internet as a “Title II” communications service and impose rules that prohibit providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or from selling speedier access to their subscribers.

Now the FCC, under a Republican majority, has put out for public comment to roll back “Title II.” That’s a move that many activists see as gutting net neutrality, for it is the basis the FCC’s authority. Without it, they fear, the agency would not be able to come up with a set of rules that are legally sustainable.

“It comes down to, ‘Do you want the carrier that you are paying hundreds of dollars a month deciding what video or content gets speeded up or slowed down?” said Michael Cheah, the general counsel of Vimeo, which, like a number of sites, created a video and graphics to spread the word.

Reddit already has had a number of AMAs on net neutrality, and they will be featuring messages across the site on Wednesday, encouraging users to engage on the issue.

Here’s what else to look out for next:

FCC comments. So far, more 5.6 million have chimed in to the FCC. That already has surpassed the record number who filed comments in 2014. John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” did a segment back then that helped trigger public attention on the issue, and he did another one in May, warning of the FCC’s pending action.

The goal is to maximize public attention — a challenge as the media focuses on Trump-Russia and healthcare. But Cheah says that the sheer number of comments so far is a sign that net neutrality “is a top tier issue for a lot of people.”

But groups in favor of rolling back Title II are trying to mount their own effort to counter the protest. Tech Freedom hosted a press call on Tuesday to provide their own preview of the “Day of Action,” as its president Berin Szoka called for Congress to come up with net neutrality legislation.

AT&T said that it will participate in the “Day of Action” as well, even though it opposed “Title II” reclassification. The company also is calling on users to file comments with the FCC, as well as Congress, as it says that the issue is better resolved through a bipartisan bill.

The FCC deadline for comments is Aug. 16.

Agency action: Chairman Ajit Pai says that he’s keeping an open mind about the proceeding, but he has been critical of the FCC’s approach to net neutrality and has the votes to repeal it.

Given his past rhetoric about Title II, and the Trump administration’s overall move to rollback government regulation, there still is every expectation that Pai will take that action. Next week, he’ll appear before the Senate Commerce Committee for a confirmation hearing for another term, so it is likely that he will be pressed on the issue, particularly from Senate Democrats. But Pai has already been engaging conservative groups on the need to address the FCC’s approach, which he insists has been burdensome for ISPs and has limited investment. (Those claims are challenged by Internet companies via their trade group, the Internet Association.)

If the FCC gets rid of Title II, it is likely to lead to the courts, which is where previous efforts to impose sustainable rules have ended up three times in the past.

Congressional legislation. If it looks like the FCC is moving toward repeal, there is some thinking among Senate Republicans that Democrats would be more willing to come to the table and compromise on legislation. Right now, there are many doubts that will happen, and Wednesday’s protests may only put pressure on Democratic lawmakers to not give an inch when it comes to establishing rules of the road for the Internet.

In 2015, as the FCC was moving toward its current set of rules, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, tried to devise legislation that would have banned blocking and throttling of traffic, as well as paid prioritization. That was a bit of a change from past GOP rhetoric that net neutrality rules were unnecessary. But Senate Democrats found major loopholes in the proposal, as it would have stripped the FCC of much of its authority over Internet traffic.

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