In John Oliver’s recent segment urging viewers to stand up for net neutrality, the late-night comedian lamented the challenge of building public support for a seemingly obscure issue.
Net neutrality — the concept that Internet access should be equal and accessible for all — is “objectively boring,” Oliver says.
While I disagree, Oliver has a point. Net neutrality can seem like a woolly issue. Explanations tend to cite the Communications Act of 1934 — arcane fodder for a kitchen table or dorm room discussion.
But there’s a simple definition: Net neutrality prevents internet providers from slowing down users’ speeds, blocking certain websites and charging extra for swifter speeds. Unfortunately, FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s recent proposal — slated for a vote this Thursday — aims to gut net neutrality.
We’ve seen in recent years what a world without net neutrality looks like: AT&T controlling who among its customers can use FaceTime and who cannot. MetroPCS blocking video streaming for certain plan holders. Or established telecomm providers muscling out new competition.
Net neutrality is about protecting the Internet’s original nature — a public resource controlled and built by and for all users. It’s about a student in Oakland being able to access any websites he desires, without his ISP determining which ones to speed up and which ones to slow down. It’s an entrepreneur in Chicago prototyping her latest video streaming platform, without meddling from the deep-pocketed broadband provider next door. It’s a journalist who can be confident her reporting will reach all readers equally, without stories loading more slowly for some.
Without net neutrality, we witness less competition and innovation, an erosion of free speech, and digital exclusion. These are issues that deserve — and need — a mainstream movement.
Here’s the good news: Internet users — millions of us — understand this. And we’re speaking out. Net neutrality’s veneer of complexity is splintering.
We first saw this happen in late 2014, when the previous administration collected public comments around implementing stronger net neutrality protections.
“The window for the public to weigh in on how federal rule-makers should treat Internet traffic is closed, after a record 3.7 million comments arrived at the FCC,” NPR reported in September 2014.
The comments’ sentiment? An analysis of several hundred thousand “found that fewer than 1 percent were opposed to net neutrality enforcement,” NPR wrote.
Today, momentum is building even more quickly. Already — just weeks since Pai introduced his proposal — hundreds of thousands of citizens have contacted the FCC. And groups like the EFF, a nonprofit devoted to civil liberties online, are helping Internet users directly reach the FCC.
At Mozilla, we’ve witnessed this momentum firsthand. Tens of thousands of people have added their signatures to our petition. Countless others have shared voicemail recordings — more than 50 hours in total — that we’re passing along to the FCC. Callers from New Jersey to Colorado have expressed the importance net neutrality plays in their lives. Some examples:
“I know a lot of small business owners and web developers, and this would be disastrous for them,” said one caller. “Net neutrality is fundamental to our free speech. Without it, companies can make it harder to speak up online,” said another.
This surge in support comes at a crucial time: The vote on net neutrality is just days away, yes, but we’re also facing a larger inflection point. More and more, the Internet plays a major role in how we communicate, earn a living and pursue romance. It’s layered into our finances, our health care and, increasingly, the very infrastructure of our homes and cities.
Loud, consistent support for a healthy Internet — of which net neutrality is one part — is critical. If we make Internet health a mainstream issue, we can cement the web as a public resource. If we don’t, mass surveillance, exclusion and insecurity can creep into every aspect of society. Hospitals held hostage by rogue hackers can become the status quo.
Today’s support for net neutrality isn’t the start of the Internet health movement. People have been standing up for an open web since its inception — by advocating for browser choice, for open source practices, for mass surveillance reform.
But net neutrality is an opportunity to propel this movement into the mainstream. A helpful analog: the environmental movement in the second half of the 20th century. The ideas of conservation and sustainability existed long before the 1960s and 1970s. But those two decades — with the publication of “Silent Spring,” the creation of the EPA and the founding of Greenpeace — launched the movement into the mainstream. It enabled real, positive reforms and a whole era of green environmental consciousness and green business. As just one example, 85% of German energy now comes from renewables. That’s an outcome that activists in the 1960s and 1970s could never have imagined — but it was exactly what they were hoping for as they started the modern environmental movement and sparked global conversation.
We have a chance to do exactly that with issues like net neutrality — spark a conversation that will make internet health mainstream. Net neutrality makes it clear how dependent we are on an equal, open Internet for our livelihood, education, information and creativity. Today, we can voice loud and consistent support for net neutrality. And we can also fuel a broader movement — one that values principles like inclusion, equality, literacy, privacy and security online.
Mark Surman is executive director at Mozilla Foundation, an nonprofit organization dedicated to support the open source Mozilla project.