Technology
Kris Tripplar/AP

Open Internet backers stage ‘Occupy FCC’

Protesters plan to stay in front of communications regulator until it supports Net neutrality

Internet libertarians calling for the equal treatment of all Internet data have camped out in front of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, D.C., saying they won’t quit their Occupy-style protest until the regulator stands up for Net neutrality.

About 15 people stood outside the FCC’s headquarters on Wednesday afternoon in a protest organized by the two groups, Fight for the Future and Popular Resistance. Five of the demonstrators said they were determined to set up camp overnight and stick around until May 15, when the commission is set to unveil proposed new Net neutrality rules — or perhaps longer, if the new rules don’t meet their expectations.

Margaret Flowers of Popular Resistance says members of the protest — officially called “Camp Out to Save Net Neutrality” or “People’s Firewall FCC Camp” and unofficially as “Occupy FCC” — are in it for the long haul, bringing sleeping bags and signs and engaging in chants, such as “Hey, hey, FCC, the Internet must be free” and “FCC, drop the barrier, make the Internet a common carrier.”

Net neutrality rules previously required telecommunications companies to treat all data flowing through the Web the same, meaning no-name blogs load as fast as big-name — and big-money — websites. But a January federal appeals court ruling said there was no guarantee of Net neutrality because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 designates Web traffic as an "information service" and not a "telecommunications service." 

Without that obligation, advocates say, Internet service providers (ISPs) will start charging premiums for service speed, putting free speech on the Web at risk and harming business startups.

Open Internet advocates worry that the proposed rules will allow service providers to force consumers and the websites they visit to pay ISPs for the privilege of fast service.

“It’s one thing not to have rules to protect the Internet. It’s another thing to say it’s permissible to discriminate between traffic sources, between certain websites,” said April Glaser, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. People will surf away from slow-loading sites, effectively censoring them, Glaser added.

And while telecommunications companies have deep pockets and political clout, so do technology companies in Silicon Valley, which rely on Net neutrality. 

A coalition of dozens of tech companies including Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google and Microsoft wrote a letter to the FCC on Wednesday in support of a free and open Internet. "The Commission’s long-standing commitment and actions undertaken to protect the open Internet are a central reason why the Internet remains an engine of entrepreneurship and economic growth," the letter read.

"This Commission should take the necessary steps to ensure that the internet remains an open platform for speech and commerce so that America continues to lead the world in technology markets." 

Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer said removing Net neutrality protections would enable “censorship,” with many news organizations and startups being left behind while corporations dominate the Web.

In April, streaming video giant Netflix appeared to bow to this pressure, keeping its binge watchers happy by paying Comcast a fee for fast traffic. Comcast, meanwhile, plans to absorb Time Warner Cable, meaning about 30 million Americans will soon rely on the company for Web access.

Reddit co-founder and entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian gave a stark image of what he believes the Internet could become.

In an email to Al Jazeera, he said the best-case scenario is that broadband will be reclassified as a common carrier. The worst case would be a “tiered Internet where our Internet plan looks like a cable package, e.g., basic Internet lets you access Bing and for $20 a month more you can get Google, and for another $30 you get ‘duckduckgo,’ or some other upstart competitor.”

FCC spokesman Neil Grace acknowledged the Washington protests.

“Chairman [Tom] Wheeler is encouraging the public to share their views on how best to protect and promote the Internet,” said Grace in an emailed statement. “We appreciate the high level of interest and the large number of comments we have received. Those comments will help inform the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and subsequent commission decisions." 

The Washington protesters, meanwhile, aim to raise awareness among FCC workers themselves. Popular Resistance’s Flowers says protesters are handing out “whistleblower pamphlets” to the agency’s employees, in case they want to speak out about telecom company influence.

She added that the FCC’s external affairs officer had already called the group asking about its message.

Flowers said protesters won’t give up their patch of downtown D.C. until the commission upholds the principle of Net neutrality. “If they ask us to leave, we’re not going to leave,” she said, adding that so far the demonstrators had a good relationship with Department of Homeland Security police standing guard.

“This is just the beginning. A lot of people care about this. We’ve got a lot of young students, and they’re going to be out of school this summer. There’s going to be a lot of public opposition,” she added.

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