By Bob Turner
The call was sent out over the Internet. “The new chairman of the FCC was a top lawyer at Verizon. Now he’s calling for a vote to kill net neutrality…Join the Protest Dec. 7 at Verizon stores nationwide.”
Team Internet, a grassroots network of nearly half a million volunteer activists who joined together last summer to protect net neutrality, created a Web site to organize local demonstrations throughout the country. All Verizon stores in the country were keyed onto an interactive map, allowing individuals to add their e-mail addresses and become protest leaders in their own communities. This might have worked well in smaller towns, where a single location can focus everyone’s activity together, but Fresno and Clovis have four of these stores, and people weren’t sure which should serve as the location for the protest.
At the Verizon store on Blackstone Avenue near San Jose Street, there was a sole brave protester with a sign warning, “The Corporates Are Coming. Honk 4 Free Net!” Bryce, who preferred to withhold his last name, said that he participates in a lot of activist movements. His concern about ending net neutrality has to do with the erosion of our freedoms. Without a level playing field, “if Internet service providers want to slow down someone, they can.
“Grassroots organizations working against the craziness going on in this world could be shut out altogether. With just a few companies left in control, there could be a stranglehold on communication.”
When asked if ending government regulations might lead to more innovation, just as the breakup of Bell Telephone led to the smartphone revolution, Bryce said there was a bigger chance of the large corporations shutting out small entrepreneurs and competitors than encouraging them.
At the Verizon outlet further north on Blackstone across from River Park Shopping Center, about 15 people gathered along the main sidewalk to catch the attention of drivers.
Web developer Austin Verburg said that a lot of the clients he works with are small businesses that could suffer if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does away with the current rules. “The vast majority of Americans support net neutrality, even 75% of Republican voters. Despite that, our Republican representatives on the FCC are steadfastly refusing to acknowledge public opinion.”
He complained that there was no pressure coming from Congress to preserve the current regulations. “Comcast is the second-largest lobbyist in the country and can influence the legislative branch more efficiently than I can. But even if [net neutrality] gets repealed, we want them to know we are out here.”
As for the argument about increasing competition and innovation, Verburg noted that the Obama administration put the net neutrality rules in place in 2015. “If lack of net neutrality didn’t increase competition in prior years, then it won’t happen now.”
Carol Eliason learned about the protest from Move to Amend. “I am concerned about the overall trend of consolidation seen across every sector of the economy. Whether in healthcare, insurance, banks or media, there are fewer and fewer players on the scene, choking competition. The Internet is so vital for the economy, we can’t treat it like an optional consumer service. Rather, it needs to be treated like a utility in which everyone is given equal access.”
“In this age, there are so many who don’t have a voice,” said Cyrus Kinzel, a student of literature at Fresno City College. “Change the rules, and they will be able to charge more for services that now are free. Small startup Internet companies will be at a disadvantage, as the ISPs [Internet service providers] will charge them fees they might not be able to afford.
“What is worrying is that they will have the ability to censor things that don’t fit in with their agenda—throttle speeds as they wish, charge extra fees or they could cut off access altogether.”
James C., a father of two who was active in the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Occupy movement, took action when the management of the Verizon store tried to stop the protest on the walkway in front of the store. “They said we could not protest outside of the Verizon office because someone was smoking. Once that was dealt with, it ended up with ‘Don’t be a nuisance,’ but there was no merit in their argument.
“I googled ‘protesting in front of a business in California’ on my phone and cited Penal Code 602(1). This is a perfect example of what you can do quickly with a free Internet. Imagine if each wiki page worked like an old Blackberry because they aren’t paying the Internet provider a premium.”
P.C. 602(1) declares a misdemeanor if one refuses to leave when asked only if the person intentionally interferes with the business by obstruction or intimidation of its employees or customers. The sidewalk where the protest began is private property, though it is not clear whether it is owned as part of the building or by the shopping center. However, labor union activities and other activities protected by the Constitution are explicitly allowed under this section. So long as they are not causing a serious disruption, James was arguing, the only reason the store wanted them off the property was because they didn’t like what they were saying.
“Without net neutrality, there is so much that could go wrong. They could block Bernie Sanders sites from the Internet, charge $2,500 to make your name searchable, increase the cost of service for charities like the Red Cross. They can do it, and they can hide it, because they control what information you are being fed.
“Wikipedia survived off donations for years. Can they afford to remain free without net neutrality?”
As to the potential for innovation, James said that he does not “see a way to add innovation by removing net neutrality. Instead, I see a way of drastically hampering creativity by doing away with it.”
Matt Higley is professionally involved with the Internet. An instructor at Geekwise Academy, a learning center at Bitwise South Stadium in downtown Fresno, Higley teaches Web site construction and mentors cohorts in developing Web applications.
“We are in a different time than when the Bell system was broken up. In a perfect world, one of them might try to push everyone to them by charging less and guaranteeing freedom. There is an opportunity for the big ISPs here, but generally they take advantage of every opportunity to nickel and dime everyone.”
Higley worries about the future of the open source movement without net neutrality. “There is a community of developers who create open source applications—developers like myself, building things for others to use freely, games where anyone can go into the code and learn, expand upon it, make it better.” Open source developers share their changes within the community, a process facilitated when the Internet is freely open to everyone.
Higley said that with the end of net neutrality “we might have to find a solution inside of what’s left,” but he believes that will slow innovation.
Team Internet is spearheaded by Demand Progress, Fight for the Future and the Free Press Action Fund, three of the groups behind the massive July 12 net neutrality day of action that drove millions of comments, e-mails, and phone calls to the FCC and Congress.
On Dec. 14, the FCC voted 3-2 to allow Internet providers to speed up service for Web sites they favor and block or slow others in a decision that repealed regulations put in place by the Obama administration to oversee broadband companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.
Bob Turner, a former Bay Area physics and geology teacher, is the editor of Tehipite Topics, the quarterly newsletter of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, and a member of the Downtown Fresno Coalition. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.