Usually when you see a crowd outside the Verizon retail store on Boylston Street, it means Apple’s rolling out a new smartphone. But the group that gathered outside the Boston store last Thursday was much bigger than the one iPhones usually attract, and made up of people who were anything but happy.
The crowd of about 100 had come to protest, not mainly against Verizon, but rather the Federal Communications Commission. On Thursday it’s expected to reverse the Obama administration’s policy on “Net neutrality,” the principle that all data moving over the Internet should be treated equally by broadband providers like Verizon. Similar protests were held Thursday in dozens of other US cities.
The FCC, founded in the 1930s to oversee the nation’s radio and telephone systems, is one of the nerdier federal agencies. Rarely do its actions spawn millions of angry e-mails, or nationwide protests. But Net neutrality is different.
Activists warn that once the current FCC regulations are gone, Internet providers like Verizon and Comcast will be free to block or throttle down the speed of digital communications. The companies could use this power to enhance profits or bolster political power. At a time when nearly every American relies on the Internet for news, entertainment, education and commerce, FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to abolish his agency’s Net neutrality program has inspired a ferocious backlash.
After earlier attempts by the FCC to impose Net neutrality were shot down in federal courts, the Obama administration’s FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, decided to reclassify Internet providers as public utilities similar to traditional phone companies, a shift that has been upheld in court. The policy gave the FCC potentially vast powers to regulate many aspects of the Internet. But Wheeler vowed to use the power sparingly, and primarily to prevent broadband companies from censoring or reducing the speed of Internet content.
Pai, a former Verizon executive, argues that the previous administration’s decision gave the FCC too much power. He said the regulations will cause companies to invest less in broadband upgrades and to roll out fewer innovative products and services.
One of the Boston protesters carried a sign with an image of Pai wearing horns. “Throttle yourself,” read another sign. “So bad, even introverts are here,” another one read.
“I feel that we are headed toward a one-party government, a de facto end of democracy,” said protester Andrea Payne, 61, of Dorchester. “If you control communications in any society, then you control that society, and that’s what they’re attempting to do.”
Payne believes the Trump administration wants Internet companies to hamper the online activities of liberal activists, by blocking access to their websites. “They will have access to all the Internet and its tools to help them organize when 2018 comes along,” she said. “We won’t, because they will be able to block websites that are progressive, that are left-leaning, that are Democratic-leaning.”
Mike Keefe-Feldman, 38, of Beverly, a communications manager at Berklee College of Music, said Net neutrality is vital to protect free-market competition. “Small business has thrived on the Internet because a little small business could load on your computer just as fast as a corporate giant’s could,” Keefe-Feldman said. Without Net neutrality, he warned, broadband companies might accept payoffs to deliver data traffic from big companies more efficiently than that of smaller rivals.
Last month, the American Sustainable Business Council, an association of small businesses, urged Pai to keep current Net neutrality rules in place. “As a business, we need free access to information,” said one of the letter’s signers, Timothy Havel, president of Energy Compression Inc. in Boston. “We don’t want to be gouged by the ISPs that have near-monopoly power in many districts.”
Another signer, Rachael Solem, president of Irving House, a small hotel in Cambridge, worries that larger hotels will get a permanent advantage if they can purchase superior Internet access. “There needs to be some way to make sure that everyone has a level playing field,”she said.
But Pai isn’t the only one who opposes the current Net rules. Larry Downes, project director at Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, agrees that Internet companies should not be allowed to discriminate against some kinds of traffic. But he added, “much of this is already illegal.” He said abuses can be policed by the Federal Trade Commission under existing laws against unfair trade practices.
Downes also took aim at the Net neutrality movement, saying that its leaders’ true goal is an Internet under government control. “This has never been a fight about blocking and throttling or prioritization,” he said. “The goal is the nationalization of the Internet infrastructure, either as a government-owned facility or as a quasi-governmental public utility.”Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.