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The Free, Open Internet Is Doomed for the Foreseeable Future

If you’ve been paying diligent attention to the ongoing effort by the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission to roll back consumer protections relating to internet access, then you might know that today is the so-called Net Neutrality Day of Action. Across the web, thousands of sites are banding together to inform their users of what’s at stake if the FCC unravels Title II regulations on internet-service providers, and encouraging them to take action by leaving a comment before July 17.

But chances are you haven’t been paying diligent attention. Net neutrality — the principle that all traffic on a network, from Netflix streaming video to homemade text websites, be treated equally by service providers like Verizon and Comcast — has always been a tough sell, in part because its implications feel very minor. The analogy commonly trotted out, that eliminating net neutrality would allow ISPs to create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” is entirely uninspiring, making the issue seem like a five-minute traffic delay, and not regulatory repeal that could reshape the internet, allowing large corporations to consolidate power and influence on the most important communications infrastructure on the planet, shutting out competitors, and making the web worse for everyday users.

In the past, the difficulty of getting people to care about internet policy issues has always been counterbalanced by the dedicated effort of a handful of big platforms and hundreds of thousands of mobilized internet users — redditors, Tumblr bloggers, and the like. But compared to similar regulatory battles in which the internet layman triumphed, today’s fight for net neutrality is anemic at best. In early 2012, a concerted effort against SOPA, a poorly constructed bill that would’ve effectively afforded censorship powers to copyright holders, was defeated after widespread public outcry. The 2015 Open Internet Order that the FCC now seeks to undue came about in part because of millions of public comments that flooded the system in support of it.

Today’s Day of Action, sponsored by an internet-advocacy group called Fight for the Future, is supplying users with the ability to comment to the FCC, and supplying websites with assets to use to inform their readers. Good! Among the thousands of companies participating are heavy hitters like Reddit, GitHub, Amazon, Mozilla, and PornHub — don’t discount how much people care about access to porn. Also, tucked in there is the Internet Association, a trade group that represents many of the largest platforms, including Facebook and Google.

For the most part, unfortunately, the “action” being taken today is to run a banner on a site’s homepage that says something like “internet freedom is at stake!” (Reddit has a lengthy, informative post front and center on its much-trafficked homepage, while Amazon’s bland module just says “Net Neutrality? Learn more,” ensuring that nobody is going to click on it.) Many of these link to the Internet Association’s action page, a flaccid call to action that feels like it was constructed in 2013 — a listicle of reaction GIFs. It’s a rhetorical tactic that might be as effective for protecting net neutrality as it was for getting Hillary Clinton elected president.

It shouldn’t be this way! Net neutrality and a free, open internet are important principles that are truly bipartisan, principles that free-speech advocates from leftist Twitter to right-wing subreddits can get behind. Why aren’t we doing better? Why is the fight for net neutrality so anemic?

Sadly, the clearest and most obvious reason is that the rollback is essentially a done deal. Republicans control the federal government, and even if you could bring pressure to bear on your elected representatives, the FCC isn’t democratically elected and doesn’t have to answer so directly to voters. The primary mechanism that people have for action on this issue is useless. Public comments to the FCC are helpful in some ways, but the FCC has already indicated that it doesn’t really care — the comment system isn’t ballot; it’s a way of collecting data. Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman and former Verizon lawyer whose arguments on this issue have been at best specious and at worst dishonest, has signaled clearly his intent to end net-neutrality rules. Before he was even appointed under the Trump administration, he had said that net neutrality’s “days are numbered.” (On top of this, the system for filing electronic comments has been flooded with identical comments, signed with the names of real people without their knowledge, likely the result of an automated program harnessing publicly available data. These bot comments give the FCC an out to disregard the millions of legitimate comments entirely.)

It’s also worth noting that in a political climate that seeks to instate or reinstate racist, discriminatory, xenophobic, homophobic, and environmentally catastrophic policies, the issue of “a video of a guy getting hit in the nuts might take a few more seconds to load” is difficult to prioritize. Ironically, we just might not have the bandwidth to advocate for net neutrality.

The fact of the matter is that, in a perfect world, the fight for internet freedom would be a grassroots movement from hundreds of thousands of smaller sites. But in this reality, against an FCC pushing the Title II rollback as an economic boon, the most effective companies for rallying against it are arguably the ones with the most economic weight. That means companies like Facebook and Google and Microsoft and Netflix — companies with market shares so large that they don’t really need net neutrality to survive.

Most of these large companies are remaining silent, or at most, speaking in whispers. Netflix has a banner on its homepage today, but that may be partially due to CEO Reed Hasting’s overly candid and subsequently criticized remarks in May, when he said that net neutrality is “not narrowly important to us because we’re big enough to get the deals we want.” The site quickly made a vocal commitment to today’s effort a few weeks afterward.

Facebook and Google, which see billions of users every day, are doing next to nothing, represented by proxy through the Internet Association. Instead of displaying any sort of message for its millions of search-engine users today, Google is “sending [an] email to Take Action, our community focused on issues that are important to the future of the internet.” In other words, an email to the precise audience that doesn’t need further information about this issue. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has written a post for his personal page. Neither company responded to softball inquiries last month about whether they were planning anything for today, a perfect opportunity for them to crow about how much their users matter.

When I inquired about their absence last month, Fight the Future’s Evan Greer wrote back, “We won the net-neutrality rules that we have now without major participation from some of the companies you’re curious about, and we often see that it’s not always the largest companies that drive the most participation in these efforts. An online gaming community, start-up, or popular image-sharing site can sometimes drive more traffic, comments, emails, and phone calls than a Fortune 500 company. To me, that’s the real story: the internet has changed the rules for what is and isn’t possible in Washington, D.C., and has given more people a voice than ever before.”

A couple of years ago, I would have agreed, but the paradigm has shifted, especially as the current FCC seeks to delegitimize its comment system that gives the average user a voice. If those voices are discredited, then we’re in the unenviable position of relying on benevolent corporate behemoths to advocate on our behalf.

“This also underscores exactly why we need net neutrality. Without it, only the largest, most incumbent, players get a seat at the table,” Greer continued in her message last month. “Title II net-neutrality protections foster the competition, innovation, and creativity that has made the internet what it is today.” I guess the truth we now have to accept is that the largest internet companies are perfectly fine with the internet we have today. What’s the point of giving the little guy a hand when they can eventually unseat you?

There are encouraging glimmers of hope, however. “In the last four years, most congressmen have been very scared to weigh in on internet-related stuff,” one D.C. consultant told Vice, a sign that the grassroots effort to protect the internet on behalf of consumers is a growing political consideration. Congress and the FCC might have little interest in listening to net-neutrality advocates in the current political climate, but political winds can change rapidly, and with any luck, they will.

The Free, Open Internet Is Doomed for the Foreseeable Future