Wilson Dizard / Al Jazeera

Protest marks end of comment period on Net neutrality

Demonstration in NYC brings together activists and politicians decrying rise of unequal Internet

Scores of protesters calling for strong Net neutrality rules gathered in New York on Monday to voice opposition to plans to divide the Web into a two-tier system under which providers could charge online services for access to fast lanes.

About 100 demonstrators gathered near City Hall in lower Manhattan, joining Internet rights advocates and politicians in the action — which coincided with the deadline for comments on proposed changes put forward by the Federal Communications Commission

An organizer holding a megaphone led call-and-response chants of “Internet! Freedom!” and “FCC, can’t you see? We want Net neutrality” during the action.

Cindy Martinez, a 24-year-old community organizer from the Bronx, was one of the demonstrators.

Holding a sign that said “Save the Internet,” she said, “I’m not the sort of person who can pay to have Web pages load at a faster rate than everybody else. This is for everybody. Everybody uses the Internet,” she said, adding that she hopes regulators will keep speeds equal.

Monday marked the last chance for people to send comments to the FCC on how Internet service providers (ISP) — like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon — should treat Internet traffic.

In January, in response to a challenge from Verizon, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Net neutrality, a practice that telecoms had been following, was not actually in place as a formal regulation. With it in limbo, regulators are trying to determine how to codify standards.

The commission should reach a final decision sometime next year. But it has already signaled that the new rules may allow ISPs to charge customers for faster connections while establishing a floor for Internet speeds. This, in effect, would create a two-tier system.

Net neutrality backers hope to see the FCC regulate the Internet as a common carrier, like phone traffic. But some in the telecommunications industry would like to charge bandwidth-hungry websites — Netflix, for example — for fast loading speeds. Net neutrality supporters see this as a potential threat to free speech. So far, the FCC has received 3 million comments from Internet users.

Some say the result could turn the Internet into something more akin to current cable TV packages, with basic plans far inferior to premium ones.

“I’m a strong supporter of Net neutrality. It’s about free speech,” said Dennis Osorio, 40, from East Harlem, a Web designer for social justice advocacy groups. “It’s a multipronged justice issue about access to information.”

Technology entrepreneurs, some with deep pockets, have also come out in favor of Net neutrality. Startup businesses rely on equal access to the data pipelines that ISPs manage.

The City Hall demonstration followed a weekend of “slowdown” protests by certain websites, with featured banners telling visitors that the speed their site loads could be affected by a tiered Internet.

Present at the protest were former New York gubernatorial candidate Democrat Zephyr Teachout and her running mate, would-be Lt. Gov. Tim Wu. The pair, who lost earlier this month to incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both addressed the demonstration.

Speaking to reporters after the protest, she said that Net neutrality was key to small enterprises. But she said that concern extended beyond the business community.

“This is a very basic human thing. I think so many politicians still think that the Internet is a kind of boutique issue,” Teachout said, adding that many in positions of power started their careers in the 1980s and 1990s when the Web played a smaller role in everyday life.

“They’re starting to realize this is not a boutique issue. This is like ‘How much does bread cost, and what’s going on with my cable bill?’”

Protesters also held up signs denouncing the proposed Time Warner Cable and Comcast merger. The new company would cover about two thirds of U.S. cable subscribers. Because of the way telecommunication companies have divided their territory, consumers have limited opportunities to switch to different ISPs.

“The consolidation is already chilling, and the potential of a merger without Net neutrality is extremely chilling,” Teachout said.

People “don’t fundamentally trust a cable company,” she added. “The amount of anger against big cable is extraordinary.”

Comcast contends that it stands as a great example of defending Net neutrality, being the only company that must abide by Net neutrality standards.

“We have stated time and again that we are for a free and open Internet,” said Charlie Douglas, a Comcast spokesman. “We are the only ISP that is legally bound by the entire set of open Internet rules.”

Free Press president Craig Aaron noted that a consent decree imposed by regulators after Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal in 2011 compelled the company to abide by Net neutrality rules. But he suggested that this might not last for long.

“They’re trying to put together a huge merger right now, and in order to try to convince the FCC and Congress that they should be allowed to do that, they’ve suddenly become advocates for Net neutrality,” he said.

“The reality is they’re just biding their time until all the mergers are done, when they can go back to messing with and interfering with the Internet,” Aaron said.

Asked what would be worse, a Time Warner Cable–Comcast merger or the official end of Net neutrality, Wu suggested that they were “joint threats” to Internet freedom. 

“It’s kind of like asking about death or torture,” Wu said.

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