Activists Are Teaming Up With Big Tech For Net Neutrality Protests

Eric Lieberman | Deputy Editor

Activist groups pushing for U.S. government oversight of the internet are encouraging people to protest and demonstrate Wednesday in what is being called a “day of action,” and they appear to have the support of Silicon Valley and much of the larger tech industry.

Three groups, Fight for the Future, Free Press, and Demand Progress, started the “Battle for the Net” project in order to rally supporters. One of the primary methods for outreach and advocacy is offering companies and organizations a computer widget that gives websites the ability to greet visitors with a set of information. Those details can include the address of their local congressman’s office or information on how to correspond with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on their online forum for public comments.

The debate over net neutrality has been heating up in recent months after new FCC leadership voiced their aversion and intent to unroll Obama-era rules the agency imposed only a couple of years ago.

Net neutrality is a nebulous term loosely defined as the principle that internet service providers have no right to discriminate against certain forms of traffic, including spam, nor to offer faster speeds to higher-paying customers. For supporters, who usually skew left, it means all traffic receives equal treatment. For critics, who skew right, net neutrality is a government takeover that prevents companies from investing in faster infrastructure.

It is important to distinguish that the majority of liberal groups want the government to categorize the internet as a Title II utility (meaning publicly controlled), which is not the exact same as net neutrality. Placing the internet under the Title II classification is a mechanism to enforce net neutrality in a comprehensive manner, though many businesses call it cumbersome and restrictive.

A representative for Comcast, which is portrayed as an exploitative, overly-capitalistic corporation by Fight for the Future, Free Press and Demand Progress, alluded to this concept in an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation. Comcast maintains it is for equal treatment of the internet, and against placing the government in central command.

AT&T, another internet service provider that is vilified by the activist groups, also says it supports net neutrality — but not a Title II classification — because it would severely limit the industry’s ability to innovate by extending new offerings to consumers. (RELATED: America’s Favorite Cell Phone Perk Is Coming Back, FCC Head Says, Because Of Obama Regs Roll Back)

“AT&T continues to support the fundamental tenets of net neutrality,” AT&T Chairman & CEO Randall Stephenson said in an official statement. “And we remain committed to open internet protections that are fair and equal for everyone. The bipartisan, light-touch regulatory approach that Congress established at the internet’s inception brought American consumers unparalleled investment in broadband infrastructure, created jobs and fueled economic growth. It was illogical for the FCC in 2015 to abandon that light-touch approach and instead regulate the internet under an 80-year-old law designed to set rates for the rotary-dial-telephone era.”

When AT&T started offering free data through the “DirectTV Now” service last year, the FCC under the Obama administration ordered it to stop because the offer was a violation of net neutrality.

The FCC leadership at the time — as well as the activist groups today — worried that more powerful internet service-providers, like AT&T, would be able to exact charges for data received from video-streaming companies like Netflix and Hulu while offering its own content for free. They fear that by creating a gap in costs, less established companies will not be able to prosper. AT&T’s Stephenson said in December that his company received “a really aggressive letter” from the agency for giving better, cheaper services to their customers.

In a press release issued Tuesday, Bob Quinn, senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs at AT&T, announced the company is joining the “day of action.” He clarified that this “may seem like an anomaly to many people,” but that it shouldn’t since there are ways to foster an open internet environment without using an antiquated statute and classification.

Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight for The Future, told TheDCNF that several organizations have reached out to their coalition and expressed interest in either using their widget, or advocating for an open internet in some similar respect.

Starting months ago, the FCC invited people to publish their thoughts about net neutrality on the public filing system in an attempt to have the rule-making process for internet regulation as democratic as possible. Hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps millions, though it is difficult to tell due to unclear authenticity) have apparently contributed to the policy debate through the FCC’s online forum, despite how technical, complex, and idiosyncratic the issue is. (RELATED: Exclusive: More Than 300,000 ‘Pro-Net Neutrality’ Comments On FCC’s Public Forum Likely Fakes)

Now the same liberal, pro-net neutrality activists who have been contributing to the flood of comments — anti-net neutrality activists have as well — are organizing support of a government takeover of the internet. Companies that have expressed their intention to back these activists include tech giants like Amazon, Netflix, Twitter and Dropbox, according to the larger protest website. How these companies will participate remains to be seen, as Wilson told TheDCNF they “don’t really know what to expect” since they have never gotten such a high degree of backing before.

“We support strong net neutrality protections, even if we are at less risk because of our popularity,” a public relations executive at Netflix told TheDCNF, referring to the company’s belief that compared to years ago it is less likely to be harmed if net neutrality rules are unraveled. “There are other companies for whom this is a bigger issue, and we’re joining this day of action to ensure the next Netflix has a fair shot to go the distance.”

Other participants of the “day of action” consist of organizations from a wide variety of industries, from lobbying groups and advocacy organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation, to pornographic video-sharing services like PornHub and YouPorn.

“Net neutrality is an essential driver of innovation for startups,” Vice President of PornHub Corey Price said in a statement. “It has helped us and many others create leading-edge solutions that have huge benefits for consumers. It’s a fight worth fighting and we’re excited to stand alongside industry leaders to protest the FCC’s planned rollback of net neutrality rules. I encourage all our fans across the world to stand together on July 12th and help spread the word.”

Fight for the Future has issued a number of press releases in recent weeks boasting that “more than 80,000 people, sites, and organizations have signed on to the effort overall.” With so many entities participating, a large portion of Silicon Valley is ideologically aligning itself with far-left leaning organizations, including some of the groups’ leaders who have connections to groups or people with a violent history.

The activists are part of the pro-net neutrality advocacy consortium that staked out FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s home for several days in May (including Mother’s Day) and includes John Zangas and Evan Greer.

Zangas, a self-described “citizen journalist” with the leftist DC Media Group collective, was the videographer of an organized Antifa (Anti-Facist) protest on March 4, 2017. Antifa protestors at the time were demonstrating at a pro-Trump rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Greer, who is a higher-up at Fight For The Future, lists his role as media strategy and outreach coordinator for the Tarek Mehanna Support Group on his LinkedIn profile. Mehanna was convicted on charges that he conspired to kill Americans, and sentenced in 2012 to 17.5 years in federal prison.

Whether more formidable and established tech conglomerates like Amazon and Netflix know they are working with organizations whose leaders have engaged in dubiously appropriate behavior is not fully known.

Bret Swanson, president of Entropy Economic and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that Silicon Valley is playing a dangerous game by calling for more oversight over its own industry. He points out that ill-defined values of neutrality have already harmed large tech companies. The European Union, for example, slapped a record $2.71 billion fine on Google for favoring some of its price-comparison search results over those of its rivals. In addition to the fine, the EU ordered the company to apply the same search results methods to its rivals that it does to its own company.

Google is not directly listed under the Battle for the Net’s participating organizations, but is a member of the Internet Association — a trade alliance that is marked under the coalition’s index of supporters.

Google also reportedly confirmed, according to two different publications, that it will participate in the “day of action” July 12, though, once again, it is not clear how. The company declined to provide comment to TheDCNF when asked about their plans for the protest.

Netflix, which is excited to join the protests, admitted to throttling video speeds for consumers of Verizon and AT&T. Almost every advocate of net neutrality says one of their primary concerns is that companies like AT&T and Verizon would be able to slow down streaming speeds for certain websites like Netflix or smaller companies, but what actually occurred was the other way around. FCC Chair Ajit Pai has said it would be wise to wait until evidence of throttling comes out before imposing restrictions on tech companies. (RELATED: FCC Chair: ‘Hysterical Prophecies’ Led Dems To Almost Break The Internet In Just Two Years)

Swanson, in his paper titled “Silicon Valley’s Dangerous Political Game,” provided several examples of the tech companies crying foul when forced to comply with standards of uniformity, or when accusations of harming neutrality are misapplied.

“A more constructive path forward on net neutrality,”  Swanson concluded, “would be for Silicon Valley to join with parties across the political spectrum to find a common sense legislative solution that protects content consumers and also the ability of current and future firms to innovate.”

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