By 9:30 Tuesday morning, Washington was already well on its way to a hot and sticky afternoon. For the handful of protesters camped out in front of the Federal Communications Commission, the heat was all worth it.
The demonstrators are calling on the FCC’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, to abandon a proposal that allows Internet providers to charge content companies like Dropbox and Google extra for speedy and reliable service. They set up shop on a small strip of concrete and grass outside the FCC building on Maine Avenue in Southwest. When I visited, drivers whizzed past on a highway onramp just a few feet from the curb. While the traffic didn’t feel unsafe, it kept the protesters mostly hemmed in. Orange and white tents from REI dotted the perimeter. It was hard to see whether anyone was inside them taking refuge from the heat.
Drawing inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street protests of a few years ago, the demonstrators are asking the agency to reclassify broadband providers as utility companies, which would allow the government to issue a ban on speeding up or slowing down types of Internet traffic. The FCC is considering rules that would prohibit companies from blocking traffic but could give them the freedom to offer faster service to Internet companies like Netflix and Google that chose to pay a fee.
Wheeler has defended the proposal, saying that he won’t hesitate to regulate broadband companies more strictly if the situation demands and that he is following the roadmap laid out by a federal court that struck down the FCC’s old net neutrality rules in January.
“The FCC must reclassify the Internet as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act,” said Kevin Huang, the campaign manager for the consumer group Fight for the Future. Huang had been camped at the FCC for the past two days. “Anything less is just ‘net neutrality’ in air quotes.”
The protesters are apparently being heard. A spokesperson for FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai confirmed that Pai came out and chatted on Friday with the protesters, some of whom have been camped out since May 7. While Pai, a Republican, opposes net neutrality regulations, the discussion was cordial, according to Kevin Zeese, a Baltimore-based criminal lawyer and net neutrality advocate. Other FCC staff members — even a security guard — have high-fived some members of the group in solidarity as they passed in and out of the building, said Zeese.
“When we’re out passing out literature, people almost always take the materials,” said Zeese. “They say: ‘Thank goodness you’re out here. We’re glad you’re here. We’re with you, and we hope they’re listening to you.’ We’ve had some employees come out specifically to shake our hands.”
An FCC security guard who declined to give him name because he was not authorized to speak publicly told me the protest has been mostly calm in recent days.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the net neutrality proposal Thursday. The protesters have vowed to sit in on the meeting, which is open to the public. “We’d like to have a strong public presence,” said Margaret Flowers of the consumer group Popular Resistance.
If Wheeler gets the votes he needs to move forward with his net neutrality plan this week, it will kick off a lengthy comment period, during which the public can continue to weigh in on the issue. In short, this isn’t going to be resolved overnight.
“The powers that be are going to make the decision,” said J.R. Clement, an independent contractor who has represented broadcast media interests at the FCC for the past six years and who was watching the protesters Tuesday. “Being here the last 10 years, I can say that the wheels here turn very slowly.”
More protesters were expected to arrive Tuesday night in time for a concert at the campsite, and they’re planning a rally ahead of the FCC’s meeting Thursday morning.