Inside the Opposition to Net Neutrality

Inside the Opposition to Net Neutrality

Their efforts may seem quixotic. Fight for the Future is trying to stop the chairman of the F.C.C., Ajit Pai, from dismantling rules that prevent internet service providers from blocking websites or charging them for faster delivery to consumers. The group argues that the policy, passed in 2015 and often called net neutrality, helps protect free speech and expression online.

Mr. Pai and his two Republican colleagues have committed to passing the proposal at the agency’s meeting next Thursday, in what would be a 3-to-2 party-line vote. Mr. Pai, who was nominated as chairman by President Trump, has said that the rules are unnecessary and that market forces would prevent internet service providers, like AT&T and Verizon, from blocking or slowing sites.


Tiffiniy Cheng, a co-director of Fight for the Future, working out of a home in Worcester, Mass. The group has helped lead the opposition to the F.C.C.’s proposal.

Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Some of the largest tech companies, like Google and Facebook, have been relatively quiet about the rollback of rules, even though they were vocal supporters of them in the past. At a conference this year, Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, said, “I think Trump’s F.C.C. is going to unwind the rules no matter what anybody says.”

But Fight for the Future and other grass-roots groups they are working with, including Free Press and Demand Progress, say the battle is only really beginning. They are focused on pressuring the F.C.C. through Congress, which oversees the F.C.C. and could also pass a bill addressing broadband regulation.

“We want to raise the political costs on this issue,” Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, said. “We want members of Congress to think of this as a third-rail issue that they have to support or else they will suffer in their elections.”

The protests on Thursday mostly took place outside stores run by Verizon, where Mr. Pai used to work as a lawyer. At a strip mall in Shoreline, Wash., just north of Seattle, about 18 protesters turned up on a cold, sunny morning outside a Verizon store between a Costco and a teriyaki restaurant.

Shasta Willson, a web developer who lives in Shoreline, said she ran a small literature publishing business and was concerned that the loss of net neutrality could turn the internet into something more like cable television, where access to certain online services are sold as part of content packages.

“I feel like this is the most important issue going on,” she said. “There’s some crazy stuff going on, but if we lose net neutrality you might not hear about any of it.”

In the shadow of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan, 15 to 20 protesters chanted, “Save the net” and “Free speech, equal access.” Although demonstrators said they knew the rule change would almost certainly happen next week, they were hopeful that their actions could generate enough last-minute attention to bring about a second policy turnaround.


Demonstrators in New York on Thursday said they knew the rule change would almost certainly be approved but were hopeful that their actions could generate enough attention to eventually reverse the policy.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

“I’m afraid it’s a rear-guard action,” one of the protesters, Maxine Rockoff, 79, said. “But I hope if we protest across the country, the folks in Congress will recognize it was a bad decision and reverse it.”

Fight for the Future was started in 2011 by Ms. Cheng and Mr. Holmes, friends from a math and science high school in Worcester. The two got $800,000 in seed funding from the Media Democracy Fund, a grant organization focused on media and telecommunication issues, to fight a bill meant to stop the piracy of movies and music online.

The friends, who had long fought for artists’ rights and free-speech issues, saw the bill, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, as a way for big Hollywood studios to control the internet. They helped organize online protests, coordinating with hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, which went offline at the same time and raised broad awareness of action in Washington on an arcane legislative issue. The bipartisan bill, widely expected to pass, was killed.

They then used many of the same tactics in support of the net neutrality rules passed in 2015.

“They were so creative and brought something totally different to activism,” said Marvin Ammori, the general counsel for Hyperloop One, a high-speed transportation start-up, and a board member of Fight for the Future.

Fight for the Future is now a mature operation with an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, a chief technology officer and staff dispersed around the globe. The Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation, venture capitalists such as Brad Feld of Foundry Group and entrepreneurs like Craig Newmark of support the group financially.

The group does not take money from the biggest tech companies. Its biggest Silicon Valley donors include the search engine DuckDuckGo, which donated $25,000, and the reviews site Yelp, which donated $10,000 last year.

Of the 23 million comments filed to the F.C.C. about net neutrality this year, two million were through a site that Fight for the Future helped run. The group said more than 800,000 calls were placed to Congress with its calling tool and 6.7 million emails to lawmakers with a similar tool.

The potential repeal outraged Lesley Perg, a 44-year-old adult education instructor in St. Paul. She heard of Mr. Pai’s plan in July and submitted her name, email and phone number to, a site run by Fight for the Future and its partners to see how she could fight back. She is among more than 1,500 volunteers, and for weeks she has put in four to eight hours a week in training organizers of demonstrations and congressional office visits.

“Net neutrality underlies everything I care about,” said Ms. Perg, an avid knitter who is deeply involved with knitting communities online. “Even though Pai has three votes, we need to put Congress in a tough spot and to prepare for this to go to the courts. This is a long game.”

Fight for the Future’s approach has also attracted criticism.

In August, it and the other groups put up billboards in the districts of three Republican House leaders that said the lawmakers had sold out to big internet service providers with their support of the F.C.C. plan. The three were Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who heads a communications subcommittee; Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader; and Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

“I think it is really unfortunate that this issue has been politicized,” said Dan Lyons, an associate professor at the Boston College Law School. “This is a dry admin law debate: Is antitrust sufficient to control broadband providers and, if not, will additional prophylactic rules do more harm than good to innovation?”

In an interview, Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner at the F.C.C., said, “There is a lot of misinformation out there.”

Those arguments do not deter Fight for the Future. Last week, as Mr. Pai was giving speeches that mocked celebrities like Cher and Alyssa Milano for criticizing his proposal, the group was gearing up for a big online protest set for two days before the vote. It needed to make net neutrality something that millions more Americans could care about.

On a Google hangout, its leaders, designers and political directors were in a heated debate about their protest slogan. Even minute details, like the font they would use and the color on a banner meant to be shared on sites like Twitter and Facebook, drew pointed discussion.

Even after several years promoting net neutrality, it was clear that their enthusiasm was undiminished. One design lit up Ms. Cheng.

The design, she exclaimed, made her think: “We can stop the F.C.C.!”

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