On Wednesday, your favorite websites and apps may look a little different. That’s because Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, OKCupid, and many others are teaming up for “Net Neutrality Day of Action” and will feature pop-up windows, GIFs, and in-app messages intended to mobilize their billions of users to fight the Trump administration’s reversal of rules that governed internet access.
In 2015, after years of political and legal battles, a Democratic-led Federal Communications Commission approved the Open Internet Report and Order, which imposed strict rules preventing landline and wireless internet service providers (ISPs) from favoring or hindering the types of online content they deliver to customers. One of two dissenters on the five-member commission was Ajit Pai, who is now chairman of the FCC under President Trump. In April, Pai proposed to roll back the order, which classified ISPs as something akin to public utilities under what’s called Title II of the U.S. Communications Act.
Undoing the Obama-era policy begins with a public input process that will stretch on for months before the FCC can take a vote. As they did the last time around, activists are organizing supporters of net neutrality regulations—including major tech companies, public advocacy groups, and citizens—to flood the FCC with comments before the July 17 deadline. The campaign launches on July 12 with an online awareness efforts that include point-and-click widgets for contacting the FCC and Congress, which oversees the FCC budget and legal authority. Some of the other huge internet companies who will participate are Cloudflare (with its own web site protest app), Etsy, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Netflix, PornHub, Reddit, and Vimeo.
Fast Company spoke with the organizer of both this effort and the previous campaigns, Evan Greer of the group Fight For The Future. We asked her about the state of net neutrality and the prospects for resisting Trump and Pai’s policy effort. (This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Fast Company: What’s the state of net neutrality right now?
Evan Greer: Internet users have protections that prevent their [internet service providers]—the Comcasts, Verizons, AT&Ts of the world—from slowing down websites, throttling or blocking content, or charging people special fees to access the content that’s online. The FCC is proposing to remove those protections by stripping Title II [designation], which is the legal foundation for net neutrality.
FC: If Title II designation is taken away, are there no other regulations on the books that would have any effect on net neutrality?
EG: Without these Title II protections, there’s absolutely nothing to stop internet service providers from censoring sites that they don’t like, from slowing down or throttling content from sites unless they pay up, or from charging users extra fees or requiring them to upgrade their internet packages if they are going to access the content that they’re used to being able to access for free.
FC: If the FCC made policy a few years ago classifying these providers under Title II, why can’t it just make another policy changing that?
EG: When they want to make a change in their policies they have to open what’s called an NPRM, a notice of proposed rulemaking. That opens up a public comment period, where members of the public, companies, public interest groups, anyone who has a stake in this, can make their voice heard. This can’t come to a vote until this public comment period ends [on July 17], and then there’s another period called a reply period [which ends on August 17].
FC: In addition to being a day of awareness, are you going to point people toward ways that they can take action?
EG: Absolutely. We’ve built these widgets that sites can very easily put up that allow people to submit a comment to the FCC and Congress without ever leaving the page. We also have a page called battleforthenet.com, which is a one-stop action spot where people can easily submit comments to the FCC, email their members of Congress, and make a phone call with just a few clicks. Lots of sites are using the widgets that we’re providing that show [things] like, what it would be like if a site were stuck in a slow lane, what it would be like if a site were blocked or censored outright, what it would be like to be asked to pay extra fees for content that you’re used to accessing. Folks that are running apps are sending push notifications.
FC: Are you concerned that, given that there was such a big campaign just a few years ago, people may be getting issue-weary?
EG: I’ve never seen this level of palpable energy when organizing one of these big online mobilizations. For this early in the campaign to have the largest websites on Earth, so many internet users, lining up, creating content, volunteering to be part of this, I think it’s actually the opposite. People are outraged that the FCC is trying to take away the tools that we all fought so hard for.
FC: Is there a way to quantify or qualify how you’ve gotten more support this time around?
EG: There are a number of other players this time [including Facebook and Google] that did not participate last time. I can tell you anecdotally from being behind the scenes on this, it’s just easier going in terms of getting people rallied and ready to go, I think a) because everyone is so pissed, and b) because we’re actually building an online movement here. These aren’t just individual protests that happen as a flash in the pan.
FC: Will there be any physical gatherings as well?
EG: We’re creating a simple template where people can print out a sign or turn their phone or computer into a sign, using a little app that we made called protestsign.org and just show up at their closest member of Congress’s office, take a selfie of themselves, and tweet it at their member of Congress at the end of the day, at 6 o’clock.
FC: Beyond the day of action, is there an ongoing way that the campaign will continue?
EG: This is just the beginning. Even if the FCC moves ahead as quickly as possible, we’re not talking about a vote on this until at least the fall. And I think a lot of this will pivot to Congress. The FCC makes the decision on this specific proposal, but they answer to Congress, and every lawmaker should be paying attention to the fact that this is incredibly unpopular with constituents. [Polls by both Mozilla and by the telecom industry itself show public support for net neutrality regulations.]
FC: If the FCC does take away Title II designation, is the next move up to Congress?
EG: After that, it would go to the courts. The FCC will have a tall order to prove in court that they have any good reason to do this. But I’m optimistic that we will never get there, because I do think this is going to be a tremendous mobilization on July 12th, that it’s going to change the conversation in a big way.
FC: If it does go to court, is there any evidence from the time that the order has been in effect that backs up the notion that folks would be harmed?
EG: Absolutely, there’s a log history of cable companies abusing their political power. Free Press has a great listing of noted net neutrality violations in the past that have affected internet users in a wide variety of ways. But there’s a long history of these companies abusing their power, slowing down, throttling content, blocking material, and that’s exactly why people have fought so hard for these rules and why we need to protect them.