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Will Latest Net Neutrality Fight Match 2015’s Campaign?

Variety logo Variety 5/4/2017 Ted Johnson
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After public interest groups weighed in on FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s plans last week to roll back the agency’s net neutrality framework, Pai himself took aim at one of them. He accused one of the co-founders of the organization Free Press of having a socialist agenda.

That gives you a sense of the tone of the battle ahead on an issue that’s being framed as holding America’s economic future, the open internet and free speech at stake. Capitol Hill lawmakers quickly weighed in for and against. But strangely missing from the debate so far is any response from Hollywood studios.

In previous battles, Netflix and Google have argued that it’s in the interest of major content providers to have a strong set of net neutrality rules in place to ensure that their online pathway to consumers is unimpeded.

The MPAA, though, has issued no statement, and it is not hard to see why. Its members, just as in previous battles, aren’t all in agreement. NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast, which supports Pai’s moves, but executives at other studios privately are wondering if it’s in their interest to have regulations in place.

If more major content companies do take a stand, they should be ready for combat.

The debate over net neutrality has gone on for more than a decade, and the FCC is considering the third iteration of the rules, passed in a party-line vote in 2015. ISPs and many Republicans vigorously opposed the way the agency went about enabling the regulations — by reclassifying internet service as a utility — but it allowed the then Democratic majority on the commission to pass rules that prevent internet providers from blocking or degrading traffic, or from selling to major content companies a speedier way of delivering traffic to their subscribers.

Almost 4 million people weighed in back then, many urging the commission to pass a robust set of rules — which is what they ended up doing.

Pai’s pugnacious speech signaled he’s aware his plan to reverse much of what was done two years ago will be met with great pushback. But will it match the campaign of 2015? Many public interest groups expect so — given the backlash GOP lawmakers faced several weeks ago after they voted to roll back privacy rules the FCC had passed in the Obama era.

Fight for the Future, one of the organizers of the battle to get the FCC to pass its current set of net neutrality rules, announced last week it was starting a crowdfunding campaign to raise $100,000 to finance its effort, with the aim to engage more than 1 million people in the next month. But as of Friday afternoon, the campaign had raised just over $1,200.

Part of that paltry sum may have to do with timing. Just as Pai was announcing his plan for net neutrality, the White House was unveiling its proposal for tax reform. Media coverage also was fixed on healthcare reform, a possible government shutdown, North Korea and NAFTA.

“There’s certainly a lot going on, and we’re just getting started,” said Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer. “The page was just launched and has just been tweeted a few times by the groups involved.”

Fight for the Future plans another campaign where people can take a selfie with a message written on their cable bill.

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