NYC Tech Startups Step Up to Defend Net Neutrality

While Silicon Valley titans are staying mostly on the sidelines.

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May 12 2015, 10:45am

Image: Jim Trodel/Flickr

New York tech companies are intensifying their effort to defend the Federal Communications Commission's landmark net neutrality policy from an escalating legal and political assault being waged by broadband and wireless industry giants.

Big Apple tech firms Vimeo, Kickstarter, Etsy, Meetup, and Tumblr—along with NYC venture capital powerhouse Union Square Ventures—are filing motions in DC federal court today to oppose the broadband industry's legal onslaught and protect the FCC's new policy, the companies announced Tuesday.

"We at Tumblr feel strongly that the FCC's open internet order, with its bright line rules preventing gatekeepers from choosing winners and losers online, is a meaningful and necessary step toward defending the open internet for all Americans," said Ari Shahdadi, Tumblr's general counsel. "Today we proudly continue our efforts to preserve internet openness by supporting the open internet order in court."

The new filings underscore the leading role played by New York's tech startup community in advocating for the FCC's net neutrality policy, which is designed to prevent corporate giants like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from slowing down or blocking rival internet services.

"No companies deserve more credit than the New York tech community for the victory at the FCC," said Marvin Ammori, a tech policy lawyer and leading open internet advocate. "They're a big reason that we have the strongest possible net neutrality order to defend. Naturally they're seeing it through and defending the victory in court."

If granted, the NYC tech company motions will allow these firms to become "intervenors" in federal court to help defend the FCC's order—which goes into effect next month but is currently being challenged by broadband companies—meaning they can make their case to a federal judge.

"The fact of the matter is that Google and Facebook sat this one out."

The New York internet companies were early, vocal supporters of a strong FCC approach to net neutrality during the agency's deliberation last year. By contrast, many Silicon Valley tech titans—including Google and Facebook—have stayed mostly silent on a policy they once strongly supported, despite erroneous claims that they played an outsize role in pressing for the FCC's new policy.

"The fact of the matter is that Google and Facebook sat this one out," FCC senior counsel Gigi Sohn told me flatly after the rules were approved in February. (It's worth noting that New York-based Tumblr is owned by Yahoo, but the microblogging service operates largely autonomously from its Silicon Valley parent.)

The nation's largest cable and telecom companies and their allies in Congress disagree with the new rules, which they claim will stifle online innovation and raise prices for consumers—two contentions that are vehemently denied by the FCC and net neutrality advocates. Several major telecom industry groups have filed lawsuits against the FCC calling the new rules "arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion."

Open internet supporters say the policy is necessary to maintain an open and level internet playing field, so that the next Google, Skype, or Netflix is able to succeed. Without protections against blocking or fast lanes, Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T could discriminate against startups in favor of their own rival services, net neutrality advocates argue.

"The FCC's order ensures that the pre-conditions that made the internet a success—an open architecture and no discrimination against traffic between websites and consumers—remain intact, giving businesses and individuals the freedom to innovate without permission," said Michael Cheah, general counsel at online video firm Vimeo.

Lauren Culbertson, executive director of the DC-based Internet Freedom Business Alliance, an advocacy group that represents Vimeo, Meetup, Kickstarter, Etsy, Tumblr, and other firms, said that her organization's members "played a major role in the fight for a free and open internet leading up to the FCC order, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to preserving net neutrality."

Net neutrality could emerge as a potent issue in the 2016 presidential election.

The FCC's new policy has provoked a political firestorm. In March, Republican lawmakers subjected FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to a marathon series of hearings on Capitol Hill, during which one GOP lawmaker accused the agency of "playing God with the internet."

Given the level of political vitriol, net neutrality, once an obscure tech policy matter, could emerge as a potent issue in the 2016 presidential election.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and top GOP presidential candidate, introduced a resolution in Congress designed to kill the new rules. And last week, Sen. Marco Rubio, another leading GOP presidential hopeful, reportedly called net neutrality "an extraordinary threat to our future." Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, by contrast, supports the FCC's strong approach to internet openness.

As the FCC's new policy winds its way through federal court—in what could end up being a multi-year legal process—the battle over net neutrality will become an increasingly contentious flashpoint in an ideological debate about the role of the federal government in regulating the nation's broadband economy. And while many of Silicon Valley's tech titans have remained conspicuously quiet on the issue, New York's top internet firms are leaving no doubt about where they stand.