Try this scenario on for size: You wake up, reach for your phone, and head to your favorite news site to check the headlines. But instead of the latest news, you see a message from your cellphone carrier: “This site is not available. Please upgrade to our deluxe package to access it.”
Since you’re broke and can't upgrade your plan, you head to social media to find out what’s going on in the world. On this platform, however, your feed takes forever to load because your carrier doesn’t have a special “Fast Lane” deal with your preferred app. Growing frustrated, you try to search for alternatives to your phone company online, only to be met with a “This site has been blocked,” pop-up in your browser.
It sounds like a nightmare, but if a proposal unveiled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week is enacted, this hellscape of extra fees, slow-loading apps and censorship could be the future of the internet.
How we got here is no mystery. Ajit Pai, the guy in charge of the FCC, was a lawyer for Verizon before joining the federal government. Now he’s rushing the agency toward a vote to kill net neutrality, the basic set of rules that prevent big internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast (which owns NBC Universal) from controlling what we see and do on the web. Practically speaking, net neutrality prevents these companies from slowing down or blocking online content or charging fees to access certain types of websites, apps and services.
The FCC doesn't even seem to be pretending that it’s acting on behalf of the public.
The corruption is almost cartoonish. Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC doesn't even seem to be pretending that it’s acting on behalf of the public. I say this because Pai's decision blatantly ignores the deluge of comments, emails and phone calls from internet users, small businesses and tech experts, as well as polls showing that voters from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support existing net neutrality protections.
Indeed, Pai seems more committed than ever to taking a sledgehammer to the basic underlying principles that have made the internet such an amazing platform for free expression, creativity and the exchange of ideas. The FCC wants to explicitly make it legal for telecom companies to abuse their monopoly status and act as the editors of the internet, picking and choosing what information we can and cannot see, dictating which startups succeed and which ones fail, deciding which voices and opinions are heard — and which ones are silenced.
The implications at this moment in history are frightening. The free and open internet is the single most important technology we have to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. It also puts food on the table for millions of families, demolishing barriers for those outside the mainstream to express themselves, find an audience for their work and make a living.
Given what’s at stake, it’s perhaps not surprising that the FCC waited for one of the busiest travel weeks of the year to announce its plan. Was it hoping that the holiday weekend would help bury the news?
The FCC has also called for a vote on Dec. 14, and if that happens the proposal will likely pass. After that, telecom lobbyists will set their sites on Capitol Hill, and try to exploit the crisis they created to pass further bad legislation that puts the final nail in net neutrality’s coffin.
The free and open internet is the single most important technology we have to hold the powerful accountable.
But here’s the most important thing: Net neutrality is not dead yet, and the path to saving it is actually quite clear. Ajit Pai may care more about the opinions of a handful of telecom lobbyists than millions of concerned internet users, but the FCC still has to answer to Congress, which provides crucial oversight for the agency. And our members of Congress have to answer to us, their constituents.
The internet is on fire about this right now. More than 200,000 people have used the tools at BattleForTheNet.com to contact their lawmakers in the last 24 hours alone. Outraged internet users are organizing protests at Verizon stores nationwide for week before the FCC vote. People are pissed off and paying attention. If there’s enough of a public backlash, maybe key members of Congress will feel compelled to force the FCC to slow down or even drop its plan to kill net neutrality altogether.
I am not being dramatic when I say the internet is at a crossroads. What we do between now and when the FCC votes on Dec. 14 will determine not just what the future of the web looks like, but what the future of the world could look like. There is quite literally no time to waste.
Evan Greer is a queer parent, activist, and musician based in Boston. She's the campaign director of Fight for the Future, and writes regularly for The Guardian, Newsweek and HuffPost. Follow her on twitter @evan_greer.