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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Big tech companies and their longtime allies on the grassroots left are at odds over how to deal with net neutrality — and the fight is getting nasty.

Why it matters: The long-time alliance between giant tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon and progressive advocates has been a powerful weapon in fights over copyright and surveillance reform. But the current squabbling makes it harder for the tech industry to get what it needs from Republicans and robs the activists of a united front as they fight an uphill battle to preserve the current rules.

The key difference: Big tech, while supportive of the net neutrality rules, has been far more open to a legislative compromise to finally end the net neutrality bickering. Many activists, though, are taking a harder line against any movement from the current utility-style regulations. That tension has been simmering for months and is boiling over at a crucial point in the lobbying battle.

  • Tech firms: Facebook and Reddit have both signaled they would be open to settling the net neutrality question through legislation, and the Internet Association has been supportive for longer — while maintaining support for the regulations already in place. "At Facebook, we strongly support those rules," wrote Mark Zuckerberg in a Facebook post last week. "We're also open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality."
  • The activists: The grassroots groups generally don't see themselves getting a fair shake from the current Republican-controlled Congress. Matt Wood, Policy Director for Free Press, noted they don't think legislation is necessary, as they believe the current rules are working just fine. As an industry source noted, the grassroots groups serve their own constituencies that want the strongest possible rules, so they don't have to follow the lead of large tech companies.

How it's playing out: Big tech companies — Netflix, Google and Facebook — distanced themselves from the organizers of the big net neutrality protest last week, linking not to the website set up by grassroots activists but one belonging to their trade group, the Internet Association. Staff of Republican leaders still warned the companies last week to temper their net neutrality activism.

Liberal group Fight for the Future reportedly planned to place net neutrality billboards in the districts of some of those lawmakers, including Rep. Steve Scalise, who is currently recovering from a gunshot wound. Internet Association CEO Michael Beckerman called the plan "despicable," although Fight For The Future said it never planned to target Scalise with an ad. Beckerman's words encapsulate the growing rift:

"[T]he tactics being used by Fight for the Future are not constructive. It is disingenuous for Fight for the Future to oppose working with Congress on legislation, while at the same time attacking members of Congress on this issue."

Go deeper: There are several factors driving the tension:

  • Large Silicon Valley companies know the reality of getting things done in Washington: you need friends on both sides of the aisle, and they're not going to expend all their political capital on this one. (Smaller startups remain a key group supporting activists.)
  • Public interest advocates are more attached to the legal framework of the FCC net neutrality rules (known as Title II) that doesn't stand a chance of being part of Republican legislation.
  • "The public interest community is more skeptical that you can preserve all the protections you want if you move away from the old legal framework," said Gene Kimmelman, who leads Public Knowledge, which doesn't oppose all legislation but doesn't like past proposals. "And then tech companies are probably looking for some version of net neutrality that preserves that principal regardless of whether it's called Title II or something else."
  • Advocates say their protests have been successful. Gigi Sohn, a leading pro-net neutrality voice, points out that last week's "day of action" generated 2 million comments to the FCC, 5 million emails and 124,000 calls to Congress in support of keeping the rules.

Go deeper

Storms pummel flood-hit Pacific Northwest as border river overflows

An image of the water-logged Sumas Prairie area taken last Friday. Photo: B.C. Ministry of Transportation/Twitter.

The latest ferocious storm system to hit the Pacific Northwest triggered fresh evacuation orders and at least one mudslide in flood-ravaged British Columbia, Canada, late Sunday.

Threat level: Flood sirens sounded in Washington state as the Nooksack River overflowed. Henry Braun, mayor of Abbotsford, B.C., told reporters the water flow was headed toward the Canadian border city later Sunday. "There's nothing to stop it," he said.

Updated 4 hours ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting aspects of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."