Organizers representing a half-dozen advocacy groups set up shop Thursday morning on a small patch of grass outside the FCC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., chatting among themselves and to reporters as Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It” blasted over a boom box.
The music emanated from the base of a 10-foot paper mache statue of a puppet master in a suit, featuring a money bag as a face with marionette likenesses of President Donald Trump and Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai dangling from each hand.
Protesters, once scattered on nearby sidewalk leading to the FCC building’s entrance, gathered on a patch of grass closed off by chain links to welcome a small group of Democratic congress members who addressed the crowd.
“We have won once before for net neutrality in Washington, D.C., it’s time to win again,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) bellowed. “Keep it loud and remember the PIPA/SOPA spirit. We took on the big interests and the internet won.”
Wyden was referring to the net neutrality fight in 2015, when the FCC first passed its open internet rules that banned broadband companies from setting up unequal internet access through fast and slow lanes.
Now, the agency is poised to undo those regulations. Thursday’s protest coincided with an open meeting to discuss a number of proposed FCC rules, including Chairman Pai’s recent proposal to undo the net neutrality rules implemented two years ago.
Pai announced his plan in April, calling the rules a “black cloud” that has led to “less access, fewer American jobs” because he believes the regulations have discouraged telecom companies from investing in broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
But Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who has been a long supporter of online privacy issues, emphasized at Thursday’s event that net neutrality isn’t just about internet access, it’s about democracy.
“The debate that we are here to begin is a debate over democracy itself,” Markey said in front of a crowd of about 40 people, and “whether we’re going to have a free open internet for all voices to participate in.”
“The voices of those who are not powerful will be unleashed,” Markey said.
Since the FCC released its proposal to roll back the regulations and requested public comment about it, there’s been no shortage of controversy.
So far, the public has submitted 1.6 million comments to the FCC. That number got some encouragement from media personalities, namely John Oliver, who hosts HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” and implored his viewers to submit comments about net neutrality regulations on the FCC’s website.
Within a day of Oliver’s public call, the FCC’s website temporarily shut down after a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack overloaded the agency’s servers. Additionally, a suspected coordinated bot attack is thought to be responsible for submitting thousands of fake anti-net neutrality comments using stolen identities to support Pai’s proposal.
That controversy carried over into Thursday’s protests, when a small contingent of five anti-net neutrality protesters showed up with cardboard signs that read “Stop Online Hate Media” and “Information Equality Now” as the members of Congress wrapped up their speeches. While their signs had #netneutrality scrawled on them, their presence rattled some organizers, who interpreted their presence as trolling.
They slunk in behind the main demonstration, their faces covered with signs and bandanas, carrying signs that read “Ban Breitbart,” “Ban Drudge,” or “One Down, One to Go” with a crossed out picture of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly next to a picture of Fox’s Sean Hannity.
Most members of the group wouldn’t show their faces or answer questions from reporters or organizers asking who they were and who sent them to disrupt the protest. They declined to provide their name or affiliation when asked by ThinkProgress.
One demonstrator told ThinkProgress that he was protesting to “get the conversation going” about media representation. He said he believed that “both sides should be represented in the media” across the political spectrum. He wouldn’t say how he and the other protesters in his group were connected.
“Net neutrality is about getting rid of hate speech,” one said, while talking to another media outlet.
Net neutrality, the notion that people are entitled to unfettered internet access, has become a global concept that goes beyond “fast and slow lanes” or paying for faster internet speeds. For instance, citizens in India have criticized Facebook’s Internet.org project, which partners with telecom companies, news organizations, and other content creators to provide free mobile access via its app, because it limited what content users could access. They could only see a portion of the internet, based on Facebook’s chosen partnerships, therefore limiting their access to certain content.
The FCC passed its proposal — representing the first step in repealing the Open Internet rules — on a party-line vote on Thursday, with its two Republican commissioners, Chairman Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, voting for it and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn dissenting. The proposal is now open for an extended public comment period before it can be adopted and implemented.
But the protesters still wanted to show up and fight back. Josephine Jones, of Bowie, Maryland, fought morning traffic to sit out and raise her voice in favor of net neutrality and against the FCC’s proposal.
“Once again, they’re trying to limit our free speech,” said Jones, who is in her 60s and donned a U.S. flag themed outfit complete with eyewear. “Information is power, and if they limit access…they limit information.”
Jones, who is black, said she only recently learned about the issues surrounding net neutrality but submitted her comment via fax because it, like many social issues, “it transcends all races and colors.”
“You have to fight,” she said. “You either lay down and let the fleas go all over you or you stand up and fight and shake ’em off.”