At the corner of sedate, upscale Park Slope in late October, parents with strollers are eyeing a small crowd on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library. Their painted signs are too small to read from a distance, but it’s easier to see what’s written on the cordons they’ve used to form two lines: FAST LANE and SLOW LANE.
To anyone familiar with internet discourse, it’s clear what’s going on: a protest in favor of net neutrality, a contentious issue that’s supposed to be voted on by the FCC later this year. The "fast lane" refers to companies that could pay ISPs for faster service in a world without meaningful rules; the "slow lane" is everyone else. But the signs aren’t just telling people to save the internet. In the fast lane, they’re a mix of celebrity gossip ("Extra nonsense: Jay-Z, Beyonce, Solange") and sensationalized headlines. In the slow lane, there’s news about Israeli bombings and the shooting of black teenagers Michael Brown and Vonderrick Myers by St. Louis police. A fast lane sign says "riots grip city," its slow-lane equivalent says "community rises up against police brutality."
"Riots grip city"
This rally is the prelude to "New York Speaks," an unofficial hearing organized by reform groups Free Press, Common Cause, and several others. The hearing is meant to let New Yorkers voice their concerns about how the FCC is regulating the internet in general, but there are two major issues on the table: a proposed merger between cable giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and an impending net neutrality vote. It’s been almost a year since courts struck down most of the FCC’s Open Internet Order, leaving agency chair Tom Wheeler scrambling to replace it with new rules. His vague, controversial proposal drew a record 3.7 million public comments, and supporters of net neutrality have held both physical protests and online days of action in support of stricter regulation. Former commissioner Michael Copps, currently an advisor for Common Cause, says the agency needs to be reminded of what’s at stake for citizens — allowing companies to pay for faster data or ISPs to discriminate between services would "not only really mock the potential power of the internet to improve our lives, but would be a real blow to our democracy," he says.
As those 3.7 million comments indicate, quite a few people have already let the FCC know how they feel. But the meeting in Brooklyn is marked by its focus on — or even just its prominent inclusion of — people who don’t fit the stereotypical (usually white and male) "generic internet user" template. Dragonfly, a local activist emceeing the proceedings in a long blue jacket and bright red afro, was part of the mid-October "weekend of resistance" in Ferguson, where cameras captured her embracing a police officer in the midst of the demonstration. Here, she leads the crowd in chants — and a public prayer to "the deities of the interwebs" — before ushering them inside the library to testify about how the internet has changed their lives.
Opinions on net neutrality usually split down party lines, but in mainstream debate, we often end up discussing it in apolitical terms: a world where cable companies could control internet speeds could be a world where it’s harder to watch Netflix or look at cat pictures or load Pornhub. It’s a practical and non-threatening tactic, appealing to the interests that unite many people online, and the Silicon Valley bubble is an undeniably powerful thing to have on your side. But it can also make net neutrality seem like a trivial political aside. Yes, throttling House of Cards would be indefensible, but not a human rights violation.
More importantly, it whitewashes the differences between aspiring Mark Zuckerbergs and everyone else — differences that can and should affect the larger debate. Use of wireless and wired broadband, for example, is divided along racial lines. A 2013 Pew survey found that 74 percent of white respondents had home broadband service, compared to only 64 percent of black and 53 percent of Hispanic ones. Counting smartphone data as broadband service (as internet service giants like Comcast do) virtually closes that gap. But the old net neutrality rules were much less strict for mobile data, and carriers will be fighting hard to keep it that way, despite recent opposition.
Helping the next big startup compete is a worthy idea with broad appeal, but it doesn’t cover the entire debate. The hearing, which opens with slam poetry and closes with a rendition of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," creates space to talk about more personal, less commercial issues. One person talks about finding queer online communities as a teenager, and others describe projects that will never be big enough to pay for prioritization, like sites that document police brutality. The protests in Ferguson — where news got out via social media and small livestreams when traditional networks were seen as slow or untrustworthy — are a running thread through the testimony. In less specific ways, speakers talk about the increasingly central role of the internet in public life, whether that means applying for government aid or communicating from prison.
Granted, these aren’t simply random community members — most use the event to mention a larger activism group, although one young man identifies himself simply as "unofficially representing gamers and metalheads." And alongside them are speakers from Etsy and Kickstarter, as well as a handful of New York politicians like Manhattan City Borough President Gale Brewer — Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has previously urged the FCC to treat broadband as a utility, sent a member of his staff to speak.
Through the whole event, five conspicuously empty chairs sit beside the podium, each labeled with the name of an FCC commissioner. While they remain unfilled, Mignon Clyburn, who briefly served as chair last year, did send a pre-recorded video. Clyburn, the first black woman to become a commissioner, is a clear supporter of net neutrality — she and colleague Jessica Rosenworcel have criticized Wheeler for not going far enough on the issue. But she gets a chilly reception at the hearing. As she reaches the end of her short speech, assuring listeners that "your voices will be heard," the crowd laughs. "Thanks for listening to us!" one man shouts back sardonically.
The FCC's decision is still uncertain
The FCC, in fact, may still not be close to a decision. Anonymous sources said last week that Wheeler was considering four proposals, one of which was a vague hybrid plan that would treat the backbone of the internet like a utility but leave the last mile between ISPs and consumers more loosely regulated, albeit with a ban on paid prioritization unless it’s found "just and reasonable." It’s not the full common carrier reclassification that almost all net neutrality activists are looking for, and groups across the board have criticized it, saying that it would leave room for "fast lanes" and might not even stand up in court. One of the few theoretical winners would be Netflix, whose connections with ISPs could be treated like a utility.
Unfortunately, we don’t even know when a plan will be announced — it could be as early as this month, or as late as next year, breaking the agency’s informal end-of-2014 deadline. Even under the best-case scenario, the FCC will have to craft more nuanced rules based on whatever framework it adopts, and unless it gives up on net neutrality entirely, it’s likely to be mired in lawsuits for years to come. Which is to say, there will be more protests, more debates, more public discussion of what net neutrality should be. But if New York Speaks demonstrates one thing, it’s that the loudest voices aren’t necessarily the most interesting.
Update November 5th, 3:20pm ET: Added mention of Free Press, along with Common Cause, as event organizers.