Net neutrality activists have no problem using aggressive tactics to vilify companies and government officials who aren’t all in on a government takeover of the internet. Their corporate allies and financial backers have historically looked the other way. But now, factions of Silicon Valley heavyweights are taking notice of what’s really going on, and they seem less than pleased.
Fight for the Future, and other groups warn that net neutrality is in danger because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeks to rollback Obama-era regulation of the internet. What they want to preserve is not a framework that breeds a free and open internet. But rather, it’s the reclassification of internet services as public utilities. Think about problems typically associated with public utility services; crumbling roads, rusted pipes – services in disrepair that are unreliable, take forever to fix, and are less likely to keep pace with the speed of innovation. Do you really want those qualities to hamstring the internet? The obvious answer should be, no.
With nothing less than freedom of speech supposedly at stake, Fight for the Future spearheaded a “Day of Action” on July 12, that was hyped to be thought of in the same vein as a well-organized online demonstration by Facebook, Reddit, Netflix, Wikipedia, and other tech companies five years ago. Many popular sites went “dark” on January 18, 2012, helping to thwart the passage of anti-piracy legislation, the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Internet IP Act (PIPA). Google’s doodle that day featured a black censor bar across its iconic logo.
In contrast, on July 12, 2017, the doodle celebrated the work of the late artist and designer Eiko Ishioka. There was no morphing of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai or a tech company logo into an Orwellian Big Brother figure. All due respect to Ishioka, Google’s decision to use that prime spot to note what would have been her 79th birthday was a statement in and of itself. Google simply posted a blog and sent an email directing recipients to a take action page.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was similarly low key with a Facebook post in support of net neutrality. These two companies can reach literally billions of people with flare, but they settled for the equivalent of carefully worded memos – ones that were apparently easy to miss – and by Fight for the Future’s own admission, they weren’t even official members of the Day of Action like Amazon and Twitter. Early on the Day of Action, Techdirt's Karl Bode even tweeted looking for “any example” of Facebook or Google’s participation.
One reason this would-be red-letter day turned into a red herring is that the grownups who own and run the big internet companies know this is a complex policy matter that must ultimately be dealt with in a prudent manner. They have hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. They need more certainty and less drama. There is a deepening awareness that this issue needs to be addressed by carefully crafted, bipartisan legislation, not regulatory fiat. As Zuckerberg’s Facebook post noted, “We're also open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality.” He’s not alone in his thinking.
Ironically, some of the big telecommunications companies vilified by net neutrality activists seem to agree. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast don’t want the FCC to classify Internet service as a public utility, but they do support an open internet, and they want legislation to codify basic net neutrality principles. Like the tech companies, they want more regulatory certainty because without it, investment is in jeopardy of going down.
Another reason the Day of Action fell short could be that Silicon Valley is growing wary of activists’ tactics, which feed into the cultural divide that has helped bring policymaking to a halt. Fight for the Future, for example, is erecting billboards that lambast members of Congress. The Internet Association, the trade group that represents companies like Google and Facebook, distanced itself from the campaign, stressing the need to work with Congress and commenting: “In contrast, the tactics being used by Fight for the Future are not constructive. It is disingenuous for Fight for the Future to oppose working with Congress on legislation, while at the same time attacking members of Congress on this issue.”
Net neutrality activists, with the help of late night comic John Oliver, stirred millions of activists to flood the FCC with comments in May. It turns out many comments were computer generated, duplicates, or bogus. Worse than that, many more were profane, racist, and even threatened violence. Voters don’t see themselves in these kinds of crusades. They see elites on the other side of the digital divide telling them they know best what average Americans want and need from their online experience. Even Silicon Valley elites, who proudly embrace immigrants, were likely taken aback when some of the activists they fund called for the deportation of the FCC chairman, an U.S.-born citizen of Indian heritage.
Net neutrality activists are ready to soldier on passionately, flooding the FCC with bogus and insulting comments, and berating those who hold different views. That’s what they do. But they do it to make money – lots of it. And now that tech billionaires are ready to get serious and engage with all stakeholders on a permanent, legislative solution – one that could actually be good for business and good for consumers – will we see a change in direction? Stay tuned.