Jul 12, 2017

Today’s net neutrality protest won’t matter to the FCC

Sam Jayne / Axios

Today, OkCupid users will log on looking for love and find … a message about tech policy. The dating service is joining companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon in a "day of action" to protest FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's proposed rollback of the landmark 2015 net neutrality rules.

They're hoping to replicate the success of grassroots waves that successfully swayed Washington proposals in the past, such as the SOPA/PIPA copyright bills in 2012. It won't matter. Pai has all the support he needs — and internet service providers cheering him on know that. "I think at the end of the day you've got to count votes," said AT&T's top lobbyist, Bob Quinn. "So I'm not sure there's going to be a big change in what the predicted outcome is."

  • Net neutrality activists — including tech companies — benefited during the last debate from a massive influx of comments pushing for the strict rules that were ultimately adopted. The agency is similarly being flooded this year. But the commission's Republican majority has already dismissed sheer comment volume as a driving factor in its decision-making.
  • Barack Obama's endorsement put enormous pressure on Wheeler (who Obama appointed to the commission and was a former campaign donor) to go with a stricter version of net neutrality rules. The Trump administration has supported Pai so far and hasn't given any indication they're changing their mind, even though some activists still hope that the president's populist, anti-media views might incline him to oppose Pai's proposal to undo the rules.

Why the protests don't matter: Pai's spent the better part of the last 3 years aggressively criticizing the rules. His supporters — Republican lawmakers, conservative groups, and the telecom industry — aren't wavering. So outrage from Silicon Valley and liberal activists doesn't carry much weight.

"Well, I think the FCC's moving forward, but I just think that the people who care deeply and passionately about this issue ought to shift their focus over to Congress and work with us, and we're happy to sit down with all of them," said Sen. John Thune.

Why they do: They'll rally liberal forces, potentially helping to turn out the base in next year's elections.

  • Plus, comment volume is a data point that pro-net neutrality advocates will use to make their case to court and broadly bolsters their argument. "I mean if millions of people are on one side of this issue and a handful of lobbyists are on the other, that should matter," said Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz.
  • "The objective is to show the FCC and members of Congress how popular the 2015 net neutrality rules are, and how unpopular it will be if the FCC repeals them," said Gigi Sohn, a former FCC advisor who was instrumental in putting the 2015 rules in place.

Think longer term. Everyone involved in this fight will tell you it'll head back to court eventually, and that public opposition is a key part of the case against the decision. The best way to view today's protest is through the eyes of a federal judge, not Ajit Pai.

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