By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — Last April, a dozen New York-based Internet companies gathered in the Flatiron Building boardroom of the social media website Tumblr to hear dire warnings that broadband providers were about to get the right to charge for the fastest speeds on the web.
The implication: If they didn’t pay up, they would be stuck in the slow lane.
What followed has been the longest, most sustained campaign of Internet activism in history, one that the little guys appear to have won. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote to regulate the Internet as a public good. On Tuesday, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, all but surrendered on efforts to overturn the coming ruling, conceding Democrats are lining up with President Obama in favor of the F.C.C.
How Net Neutrality Works
Video by Natalia V. Osipova and Carrie Halperin on May 15, 2014.
The future of protecting an open Internet has been the subject of fierce debate, and potential changes to the rules by the Federal Communications Commission could affect your online experience.
In the battle over so-called net neutrality, a swarm of small players, from Tumblr to Etsy, BoingBoing to Reddit, has overwhelmed the giants of the tech world, Comcast, Verizon and TimeWarner Cable, with a new brand of corporate activism — New World versus Old. The biggest players on the Internet, Amazon and Google, have stayed in the background, while smaller players — some household names like Twitter and Netflix, others far more obscure, like Chess.com and Urban Dictionary — have mobilized a grass-roots crusade.
“We don’t have an army of lobbyists to deploy. We don’t have financial resources to throw around,” said Liba Rubenstein, Tumblr’s director of social impact and public policy. “What we do have is access to an incredibly engaged, incredibly passionate user base, and we can give folks the tools to respond.”
In mid-October, the technology activist group Fight for the Future acquired the direct phone numbers of about 30 F.C.C. officials, circumventing the F.C.C.’s switchboard to send calls directly to policy makers at the agency. That set off a torrent of more than 55,000 phone calls until the group turned off the spigot Dec. 3.
In November, President Obama cited “almost four million public comments” when he publicly pressured the F.C.C. to turn away from its paid “fast lane” proposal and embrace a new regulatory framework.
Since then, the lobbying has only grown more intense. Last week, 102 small Internet companies, including Yelp, Kickstarter and Meetup, wrote the F.C.C. to say the threat of Internet service providers “abusing their gatekeeper power to impose tolls and discriminate against competitive companies is the real threat to our future,” not “heavy-handed regulation” and possible taxation, as conservatives in Washington say.
On Feb. 5, the Mozilla Foundation, makers of the popular Firefox web browser, posted a pro-net neutrality banner just below its search window, proclaiming, “In just a few days, the web could change forever,” and imploring users to sign the firm’s petition; close to 300,000 have signed, said Dave Steer, Mozilla’s director for advocacy, who has helped mobilize Silicon Valley for Net Neutrality.
“This is not East Coast-West Coast thing. It’s not a for-profit company versus nonprofit thing. It’s all of us,” he proclaimed. “We came together under the banner of Team Internet.”
Republicans who had branded net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet” have grown much quieter under the barrage.
“Tech companies would be better served to work with Congress on clear rules for the road. The thing that they’re buying into right now is a lot of legal uncertainty,” said Senator Thune, who warned that the F.C.C.’s new rule would face litigation from opponents and a possible reversal from a future, more Republican F.C.C. “I’m not sure exactly what their thinking is.
The cable and broadband companies that have fought the new regulations are even more dazed. Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said the pro-net neutrality activists have somehow turned a complex and technical debate over how best to keep the Internet operating most efficiently into a matter of religion. The forces for stronger regulation are for the Internet. Those opposed are against it.
Mr. Dietz said in no way were the Internet service providers trying to silence the Internet content companies. “They have a right to have an active voice in the public policy arena,” he said.
But, he said, the Internet companies in some case are misleading their customers, and in some cases, are being misled on the intricacies of the policy.