Internet Activist Campaign Over Net Neutrality Escalates

Will protest of FCC rules become another SOPA?

Internet activists and consumer groups are hoping to mount another Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)-like campaign to convince the Federal Communications Commission to adopt ironclad net neutrality rules and abandon its current proposal.

The campaign will begin in earnest May 15 when the FCC kicks off the formal rules procedure, which more than 100 groups fear will create “fast lanes” where big content providers will be allowed to pay ISPs for faster delivery, passing that cost off to consumers.

Internet activists have been here before. The last time an Internet coalition came together it stopped SOPA dead in its tracks in Congress. This time, they’re hoping lightning can strike twice to convince at least one of the two Democratic commissioners to reject chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal and choose to regulate the Internet like a phone service.

They’re off to a good start. Last week both Democratic commissioners, impressed by the torrent of consumer outcry, pushed back on Wheeler’s insistence of rushing the proposal into the procedure pipeline.

It’s one thing to kill a bill in Congress and another to try and influence an independent agency to adopt specific rules. Unlike Congress, the FCC’s appointed officials don’t have direct, defined constituencies. Plus, consumers are up against a stubborn chairman and some very powerful interests in the cable and telco lobbies.

“We’ve mobilized 2 million people on the issue over the past few months alone, to say nothing of the millions more who have been involved for almost a decade now. That won’t stop until we have real protections in place to keep the Internet open,” said Matt Wood, the policy director for Free Press that is leading the charge with its “Save the Internet” campaign.

So far, the activists’ numbers aren’t anywhere near the 14 million who contacted Congress during the SOPA campaign. But it’s a pretty impressive start, and the groups have time on their side before the FCC finalizes the rules at the end of the year. The SOPA campaign didn’t coalesce until the last few days before a committee vote.

Over the past week, Free Press alone has generated more than 4,000 calls to the FCC, an unprecedented number for the agency. To handle a growing number of comments, the FCC was forced to set up a dedicated inbox for open Internet comments. Thousands more have begun to call Congress.

For Wheeler to deliver what consumer groups want (to reclassify the Internet like the phone service) puts him in tough spot. Either he aligns with consumers, who he often refers to as his “client,” or he faces opposition and likely lawsuits from big cable and the telcos.

What could put more pressure on Wheeler are the big Internet players like Google and Facebook that helped put the SOPA campaign over the top. Last week, that looked more likely when more than 100 Internet companies, including Amazon, Google, Yahoo and Facebook joined early critics Netflix, Mozilla and Reddit in warning the FCC in a letter that its current course “represents a grave threat to the Internet.”

For now, Wheeler seems inclined to ramp up the rhetoric in speeches, blogs and PR, trying to reassure consumers that he “won’t hesitate” to reclassify the Internet as a phone service “if warranted,” which would impose a nondiscrimination clause and thereby kill the fast lanes.