Image: Wave of Action/Twitter
Four protesters are currently hunkered down in front of the Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, DC to try to save the internet.
The early turnout is pretty pitiful, particularly because it's a cause that has spread far and wide across the internet. The activists are calling on the FCC to reject a proposal to effectively kill net neutrality and allow for a tiered internet that favors those who can afford to pay for a fast lane.
The specter of a non-neutral web has already prompted hundreds of thousands of comments on the FCC's website, and a petition to protect the open internet gathered over a million signatures.
But to make sure all this clicktivism doesn't fall on deaf ears, activists are taking the issue offline.
"We're right in their face," Kevin Huang, campaign manager at Fight for the Future told me over the phone. That group and the activist organization site Popular Resistance are spearheading the campaign, dubbed Save the Internet.
The net neutrality proposal will be considered at the FCC's next open meeting on May 15, and the protesters plan to camp outside the agency every day, 'round the clock until then.
At least—a handful of hardcore activists plan to. Whether anyone else joins them is the question.
Advocates are hoping to spread the word to get more people to join the protest. Taking a cue from Occupy Wall Street, the hope is to quickly spread the movement to the 26 US cities where the FCC has branches in order to build a "People’s Firewall against the FCC," as the campaign website puts it.
"Occupy Wall Street showed how a sustained protest like this can start small but quickly catch fire and really make noise," Fight for the Future wrote in an email promoting the action. The email also asked for money to buy things like sleeping bags and coffee).
But if you ask me, the SOPA/PIPA backlash back in 2012 is a more apt comparison, and that protest actually worked.
There's certainly already a lot of hell being raised on the web about net neutrality’s impending death; protesters are hoping that the noise is too much for the agency to ignore. Huang said that a representative from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's office has already reached out to Fight for the Future to set up a meeting.
"I think [Wheeler's] starting to get the idea that he might have screwed up," he said. "The FCC is clearly, I think personally, scared, well not scared but surprised by, the public outrage that's going on and the resounding response to their proposal—to being wrong on net neutrality."
Wheeler said in a blog post last week that he would protect the open internet and not allow any anti-competitive behavior. But we've already seen signs of a discriminatory web, with Netflix recently inking a deal with Verizon (and signing an earlier one with Comcast) to keep its subscribers' streaming speeds moving steady.
Activists say that because President Obama campaigned on the promise of net neutrality, it’s undemocratic for his FCC to now pivot against it. They are pushing the agency to reclassify broadband internet as a “telecommunications service” so it can be regulated in the public interest, like a utility, reversing a Bush-administration decision to class it as an "information service," a move that limits the government's control.
"The stakes are really high," said Huang. "If we were to lose net neutrality through this case … it could be overwhelmingly bad for the future of technology, and the free flow of information on the internet."
"Wikipedia is meant to be free. Google is meant to be free. All these services were meant to be freely accessible to people," he said. "If the FCC moves in the wrong direction, this could mean a totally new era."
At least four people are going to make sure the FCC hears their voices IRL.
While the on-the-ground protest may be tiny, the issue is huge. And though the telcom and cable megacorporations have powerful lobbies pushing their agenda in Washington, the opposition is growing.
Silicon Valley came out swinging today too, with a letter to the FCC expressing support for a free and open internet signed by a long list of tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and eBay.
"Instead of permitting individualized bargaining and discrimination, the Comission's rules should protect users and Internet companies on both fixed and mobile platforms against blocking, discrimination, and paid prioritization," the letter states.
While I was writing this article, two FCC commissioners, Mignon L. Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, put out statements expressing their support for an open internet. Five commissioners will vote on May 15.
"The pressure is working and it looks like the armor in the FCC is cracking. You only need three out of five votes in the FCC to pass/drop things," said Huang. "This could be huge."