"We want information to flow like water,” protesters yelled outside San Francisco City Hall in the pouring rain, rallying in support of keeping the Internet open. The rally was in advance of a public forum inside City Hall on the looming net neutrality debate.
The San Francisco Bay Area has been one of the most vocal places in the nation in the fight for net neutrality, and there's a reason: Internet openness is crucial to the path-breaking artists, technologies, and businesses that thrive in this state.
The Bay Area is home to some of the world’s most recognized technology companies and bleeding-edge inventors and creators. And although this region certainly has a heavy stake in the outcome of the FCC’s net neutrality decision, the vast majority of policy conversations are happening in DC.
That’s why EFF collaborated with other local and national organizations at San Francisco City Hall last Thursday to host “Bay Area Speaks: A People’s Hearing on the Future of the Internet.” Joined by Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, librarians, public officials, and environmental activists, hackers, entrepreneurs, and educators, everyday Internet users from diverse Bay Area communities packed the room at City Hall to testify on why Internet openness is central to our lives.
The evening began with a rally outside. Holding up a giant puppet of a suit holding a money bag labeled “I$P” and a briefcase that read “net profit,” demonstrators braved the rain Thursday evening to make sure their voice is heard. Protestors projected giant images in front of City Hall that read “Information Flows Vs. Slow Lanes” and “Net Freedom vs. Corporate Control.”
And as the rain poured, the net neutrality rally was joined in front of City Hall by demonstrators calling for justice for 43 disappeared students in Mexico. Back and forth in solidarity, activists shared the stage. Common threads emerged on corruption, transparency, and the centrality of organizing online for all projects of social justice and political change. A theme was clear: when corporations or governments control how we access information and connect to each other, democracy loses.
Inside City Hall
The room was packed. Silently, Oakland musician and activist Jennifer Johns walked to the front before breaking out into a powerful song that brought the room to a focused attention.
EFF’s Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry kicked off the event, helping to remind us that only a few short months ago the FCC proposed a set of rules that would have given Internet providers clearance to charge websites to reach users faster.
But millions of people took action.
“And what happened?” McSherry asked the room. “The world changed. The FCC heard us load and clear… and last week we learned that the President heard us loud and clear.” The week before the hearing, net neutrality activists experienced a huge gain in momentum when President Obama came out in full support of bright-line net neutrality rules that would protect the open Internet, leaving the FCC to re-write their proposal.
Despite having received invitations, none of the FCC Commissioners made it to San Francisco for the night. Still, long time public interest champion and former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps flew in from Washington D.C. to speak. He reminded us what a world without net neutrality will looks like:
“If Internet service providers can unilaterally decide what news we can hear and what news we can’t, who can advocate online and who can’t, who can get the word out about rallies like the one here tonight… If they can decide that online fast lines will become the playground of the few rather than the common right of all of us, then we are in for real trouble in this country. And we will not be able to solve any of the problems that this country faces right now.”
Internet Users Shared Their Stories
We heard from librarian Amy Sonnie, outreach director for Oakland Public Libraries, who pointed out, ”Net neutrality is critical for intellectual and academic freedom in the digital age.” Public interest advocates like Ana Montes from The Utility Reform Network, and Malkia Cyril from Media Action Grassroots Network, spoke out. Internet entrepreneurs and technologists like Dan Jasper CEO of Bay area ISP Sonic.net and Tim Pozar of Fandor.com joined the call for FCC rules that will protect net neutrality.
We heard from public officials like Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan, Chris Witteman from the California Public Utilities Commission, and San Francisco Chief Officer of Innovation Jay Nath, all talking about how local governments are fighting for net neutrality rules that will protect local Internet users.
Musicians and artists spoke out. As Thao Nguyen, a popular independent musician put it, “It is plain to see now more than ever, that no musician can release a record, reach listeners or to grow a fan base without the ability to share their work unimpeded on the Internet.”
An organizer from Greenpeace shared how the centrality of the open Internet to their political organizing, Naomi Most from the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco talked about the Internet has a level playing field, and advocacy interests of all stripes joined us: a representative from Engine Advocacy talked about the needs of startups, Paul Goodman of the Greenlining Institute talked about why net neutrality is an issue of particular importance for racial justice, and Dave Steer, advocacy director at Mozilla, talked about why they continue to fight for an open Internet.
We Will Continue to Fight
Throughout this year four million Internet users commented to the FCC demanding regulators enact real, clear net neutrality rules that will prohibit Internet providers from speeding up or slowing down how we access parts of the web. Over 99% of the comments in the rulemaking were calling on the FCC to craft the kinds of rules that will protect Internet users from censorious and discriminatory conduct by Internet service providers.
To be more specific, Internet users are asking the FCC to change the way the service of providing access to the Internet is classified under federal law. Right now, the FCC legally considers Internet access to be an “information service,” but legally the FCC is only allowed to enact meaningful net neutrality consumer protections if Internet access is reclassified as a “telecommunications service” (under Title 2 of the 1934 Communications Act). As Dave Steer from Mozilla put it, “Full Title II reclassification is the cleanest, simplest path forward.”
The policies might seem complicated, but the concept isn’t. New political blogs, artist websites, startups, or growing businesses that can’t afford expensive fees for better service will face new barriers to success, leaving users with even fewer options and a less diverse Internet.
The future of the Internet is our future. It is why Bay Area activists stood with signs of giant cell phones and laptops in the rain outside San Francisco City Hall last Thursday.
And as the net neutrality debate looms in Washington D.C., we will continue to speak out, raise our voice, and we won’t stop fighting until we get the kinds of policies that will serve the information needs of our communities. Stay tuned. It’s not over yet.