On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3 to 2 to approve a proposal that would govern how providers of broadband Internet are regulated.
The proposal has serious consequences for the question of whether online content from different providers will be treated equally—or “net neutrality," as the issue is commonly known. If it becomes policy, the change in rules would allow telecom companies like Verizon and Comcast to charge content providers extra fees for faster delivery to consumers. Netflix already pays Comcast for this service, but similar agreements could proliferate under the new proposal—a development that neutrality proponents say would stifle innovation, damage free speech, and export inequality into the digital space.
“FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is still moving ahead with a proposal that puts the entire future of the Internet in danger,” wrote Evan Greer, campaign manager at the group Fight for the Future, in an email to YES.
But the debate is just getting started—Thursday’s approval begins a 120-day public comment period in which proponents of net neutrality will work to ensure stronger protections. If the past few weeks are any indication, they have a good chance at success: activists made significant gains since April 23, when a preliminary sketch of the new proposal first made the news, and this Thursday.
Here’s a look at four of what they achieved:
1. Activists pushed back on the proposal and got it changed.
The proposal the FCC just approved includes stronger protections than the FCC’s original plan, which would have allowed telecom companies to place their own subsidiaries’ content into the fast lane. For example, Comcast owns the Hollywood film company Universal Studios, and would have been allowed to make Universal’s films stream more quickly than others on its own broadband service, giving this content an unfair advantage. It’s a bit like a referee at a middle school soccer game ruling in favor of their own kid.
Earlier this month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler revised the proposal to forbid that practice. Wheeler's revisions did not satisfy net neutrality proponents, but they took place only because of the significant public outcry that greeted the original plan. That suggests that continued activism can produce even greater results.
2. Calls to elected representatives made a difference.
Calling your senator or congressperson may not feel like the newest or most exciting way to get involved these days, but in this case it was effective in bringing many elected representatives into the conversation.
In April, groups like MoveOn.org and FreePress began asking their followers to call their representatives. Then, on May 9, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and 10 other senators sent a letter to Chairman Wheeler expressing doubts about the proposed rules and recommending that the FCC reclassify broadband as a “Common Carrier,” like telephone providers are today.
Thirty-four House Democratics also sent a similar letter to the FCC.
3. Reclassification remains on the table.
The senators that wrote the FCC this May aren’t the only fans of reclassification. The move has emerged as the holy grail of the movement to keep the Internet fair and open.
The problem is that, back in 2002, the FCC classified broadband as an “information service” rather than a “communications service” under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. While communications services are protected as “common carriers” that the FCC is authorized to regulate substantially, information services are not. That's why the the commission has been smacked down in court over and over again when it's tried to enforce its own net neutrality rules—which happened most recently in January.
Wheeler’s main argument against reclassification is that it would take too long. “I do not believe we should leave the market unprotected for multiple more years while lawyers for the biggest corporate players tie the FCC’s protections up in court,” he wrote in a blog post dated April 29.
Yet Wheeler also said that “all options for protecting and promoting an Open Internet are on the table,” including reclassification. That’s an opening that proponents of net neutrality will be working hard to make the most of as the commission collects comments in the coming months.
4. It’s a big tent, and getting bigger.
The current coalition’s outlines began to appear soon after the sketch of the FCC’s proposal was released last month. Nearly 150 tech companies, including giants Amazon and Google, wrote a letter to the FCC demanding stronger protections. Dozens of musicians and entertainers, including Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Lost star Evangeline Lilly, sent a similar one.
More than 310,000 people have signed a petition organized by the political arm of the mobile network CREDO. And then there’s the entire dedicated community of people who love the Internet—and have gotten used to stepping up to defend it in earlier battles like the one to prevent SOPA, a bill that would have threatened free speech online.
It’s hard to say just what this unique sort of big tent—with its prominent representation from the business and cultural sectors—will mean in the coming months, when the binding decisions about net neutrality will get made. But it’s definitely a powerful coalition ripe with opportunities for collaboration and solidarity.