NEW YORK | Net neutrality is a simple concept but a dense and often technical issue that has been argued over for years in tech and telecom circles. Now everyday folks are talking about it.
That’s because the Federal Communications Commission has scheduled a vote next week to gut Obama-era rules meant to stop broadband companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from exercising more control over what people watch and see on the internet. The protests aren’t likely to stop the agency’s vote on Thursday, but activists hope the outcry will push Congress to intervene and will show support for stricter regulation down the road.
Net neutrality has been a hot button before, thanks to assists from Silicon Valley and TV host John Oliver speaking out about what they see as threats to the internet.
More Hollywood celebrities have been joining the cry against the agency’s direction.
“Long live cute dog videos on YouTube! #RIPinternet. Share what you loved about The Internet,” actor Mark Ruffalo tweeted as he urged people to push Congress to intervene. Big-time Hollywood producer Shonda Rhimes tweeted a link to a story about saving net-neutrality on her lifestyle website .
Net-neutrality rules bar cable and phone companies from favoring certain websites and apps — such as their own services — and give the FCC more oversight over privacy and the activities of telecom companies. Supporters worry that repealing them would hurt startups and other companies that couldn’t afford to pay a broadband company for faster access to customers.
Critics of the rules say that they hurt investment in internet infrastructure and represent too much government involvement in business. Phone and cable companies say the rules aren’t necessary because they already support an open internet.
While libertarian and conservative think tanks and telecom trade groups have spoken up against net neutrality, everyday people have been vocal in protesting the rules’ repeal.
Since the FCC announced just before Thanksgiving that it was planning to gut the rules, there have been about 750,000 calls to Congress made through Battle for the Net, a website run by groups that advocate for net neutrality. By contrast, there were fewer than 30,000 calls in the first two weeks of November. While Congress doesn’t need to approve FCC decisions, it can overrule the agency by passing a law.
Net neutrality also has triggered discussions all over social media, even in groups that typically do not discuss tech policy.
In one Facebook group about leggings seller LuLaRoe, one woman’s lament about the repeal triggered more than 270 responses. They included questions about what net neutrality was, links to explanations and statements of support. The discussion sprawled into the next day.
Meanwhile, net-neutrality supporters protested outside 700 Verizon stores Thursday, said Tim Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press, an advocacy group involved in Battle for the Net. In midtown Manhattan, some 350 people came to chant slogans and wave signs.
“Access to a free and fair internet is necessary for a functioning democracy,” said Lauren Gruber, a writer for a branding agency who joined the New York protest. If the net-neutrality rules are repealed, she said, “it’s just another showcase of oligarchy upon America.”
Most people don’t follow what federal agencies like the FCC are doing, even though decisions can have a lot of impact on people’s lives, said Beth Leech, political science professor at Rutgers University.
Having celebrities speak out can help spark people’s interest, she said.