Last month, Congress voted to invalidate FCC rules on broadband privacy which would have prevented Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from collecting and selling their customers’ information without their permission. Tech advocacy groups across the country strongly opposed this move. As much attention as that vote and President Trump’s subsequent signing the bill into law generated, broadband privacy is only one part of the picture. Repealing net neutrality rules is next in FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s sights and the pushback from tech companies could be huge.
It’s 2017 and America is living in the “Age of Advocacy.” Hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington, DC and cities across the country for the Women’s March in January. Other groups have organized for a Tax March and a March for Science in April. Perhaps the tech community will be next to take a stand. In February, over 100 tech companies signed an amicus letter opposing President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration. And, in March during SXSW, 75 tech leaders signed a letter urging Congress to support Planned Parenthood.
Sometimes, the tech community can be akin to a sleeping giant. It can take a lot to collectively spur the community to action, but when it responds, it does so forcefully, commanding attention. Net neutrality in 2014/2015 was one instance where the tech community mobilized around an issue, but an earlier example was during the SOPA/PIPA debate in 2012. SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) were House and Senate bills, respectively, seeking to fast-track legislation combating online piracy. However, the bills also had broad implications for the Domain Name System (DNS) servers – basically the Internet’s backbone and infrastructure.
Congress consulted with content creators prior to SOPA/PIPA’s introduction, but with minimal input from Internet engineers or technical experts who worked on those issues and could speak to the bills’ negative implications. A coordinated effort of tech professionals, consumer advocates, grassroots organizations, and tech companies made enough noise to cause Members of Congress to withdraw their support from the two bills, effectively killing any chance they had of passing. To illustrate just how dramatic the SOPA/PIPA outcry was at that time, Wikipedia blacked out the front page of its English website for a full 24 hours. Reddit, Mozilla and others also took public stances. In late January, Members of Congress withdrew their support from SOPA/PIPA and the bills died in their respective chambers.
Given the current Age of Advocacy, one would expect a dramatic public outcry against an attempt to roll back net neutrality rules. The questions is, what would that look like? The next action on net neutrality will happen at the FCC, not on the Hill. Organizations and individuals can file comments on the FCC docket asking Chairman Pai not to rule against the repeal. Tech companies, through the trade group The Internet Association, have already met with Chairman Pai, conveying their opposition to his proposed rollback. The tech meeting followed a previous meeting Chairman Pai had with telecom industry trade associations who are supportive of Pai’s plans.
Since the FCC is an independent agency, it’s shielded from electoral pressure in terms of voters, unlike Congress. However, the public can file comments on the agency’s open dockets, which is what led to stronger net neutrality rules the first time. Chairman Pai has indicated that he plans to move fast on this issue, likely by May. Tech users and tech companies have a chance to make their voices heard. Expect advocacy organizations on both sides of the issue to mobilize their supporters to contact their elected officials and the FCC over the next few weeks.