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Net Neutrality: How Open-Internet Activists Won Big

After protests, millions of letters and and support from the White House, open-Internet activists scored a major victory.
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After protests, millions of comments and support from President Obama, open-Internet activists scored a major victory on Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission approved net neutrality rules.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called it a "red-letter day for Internet freedom" as the regulatory agency voted 3-2 to treat broadband providers as "common carriers" under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. That means that cable and Internet providers will be treated more like public utilities — think power and gas companies — than Internet firms like Google or Facebook.

"A year ago, nobody thought these Title II net neutrality rules were a remote possibility," Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, an open Internet advocacy group, told NBC News. "I even sat across from an FCC commissioner who told me outright that it was never going to happen in this political environment."

It did happen. Opponents of the rules say it gives the FCC too much power, while net neutrality supporters claim it's necessary to stop broadband providers like Verizon and Comcast from favoring certain sources of Internet traffic, especially those that pay more for faster speeds. (Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and NBC News.)

It's a wonky, technical debate that wasn't on most people's radar a few years ago. So how did that change?

How net neutrality gained steam

When "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver aired on June 1, 2014, the prospects for net neutrality looked dim. Verizon had notched a major legal victory and the FCC was approving a plan to consider letting broadband providers charge Web companies for priority service or "fast lanes," as open-Internet advocates framed it.

The term "net neutrality" was coined back in 2003 by Columbia law professor Tim Wu. A year before, the FCC had classified broadband providers as "information services." The commission's logic was that the providers not only transmitted data — like a utility — but also processed data by providing email addresses and other Web services.

In 2010, the FCC passed net neutrality rules that weren't as broad as activists would have liked, but that still limited broadband providers' ability to block and favor certain kinds of traffic. The next year, Verizon sued the FCC, saying it didn't have to the authority to regulate information services like that. A federal appeals court agreed and ruled in favor of Verizon in January 2014.

That is when momentum began to seriously build for net neutrality. Before, it was mostly Internet activists who were raising a fuss.

"A lot of companies were afraid of speaking out," Marvin Ammori, a tech laywer who has represented companies like Google and Tumblr, told NBC News.

"They thought there would never be net neutrality," he said. "They thought there would be retaliation and they would never end up in the fast lane."

Lawmakers in Washington, he said, didn't want to push for net neutrality rules without the backing of Web companies. When the FCC considered allowing "fast lanes," many of those companies decided to openly advocate for net neutrality laws. Etsy, an online marketplace where crafters sell their wares, was one of them.

"That was something that really concerned us," Althea Erickson, Etsy's policy director, told NBC News about the FCC proposal. "It was a no-brainer for us to get involved."

Around the same time Etsy spoke out for net neutrality, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings urged politicians to take on the cause. Fight for the Future gained press attention for a protest called "Occupy the FCC" outside of the agency's headquarters.

Protesters gather at FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C. in May 2014.
Protesters gather at FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C. in May 2014.Joe Newman / Fight for the Future

Then came John Oliver's video, which went viral on YouTube. It currently has more than 8 million views. When the FCC opened its proposal up to public comment, more than 4 million people responded. In November, President Obama pushed Wheeler to adopt net neutrality rules, which increased pressure on the FCC to act. (Wheeler was appointed by Obama as FCC chairman in 2013.)

"This was organized by activists, a ragtag group of young people hunched over their laptops, working all over the country."

Activists stressed that they had been rallying people around the cause of net neutrality long before Oliver and Obama brought it to the broader public's attention.

"We knew this issue inside and out," Ammori said. "When people said 'John Oliver is wrong about X,' we could say 'no,' and tell them why."

Greer said a campaign organized by his group, Fight for the Future, was responsible for spurring 770,000 comments to the FCC in a single day. He hopes that the FCC's decision is seen not as the White House's work, but the result of grassroots activity.

"This was organized by activists, a ragtag group of young people hunched over their laptops, working all over the country," he said. "This is a victory that belongs to the people, not Netflix, not the FCC, not President Obama."

Not everyone agrees. Barry Keating, a finance professor at the University of Notre Dame, simply sees the financial interests of Web companies beating out those of broadband providers, creating a "price-fixing arrangement" that will stifle innovation.

"I think the reason that it's so popular at the grassroots level is because of the word 'neutrality,' which equates to the word 'equality' to some people," Keating told NBC News. "Everyone will be treated the same, but that just means everyone will be treated poorly."

Opponents of net neutrality still have hope. Congress could pass legislation undercutting the FCC vote and broadband companies can still file lawsuits.

For now, however, net neutrality advocates are feeling pretty good.

"Our job was to take a term like net neutrality, which a year ago was pretty obscure, and make it something that everyone in the country was talking about," Greer said. "This is a huge, unprecedented victory."