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How the net was won: Inside the war with US cable

'The Spinning Wheel of Death'

‘The Spinning Wheel of Death’

Posted by Lucy Ashton

Don’t even try suggesting to internet activist/Broadband World Forum keynote Evan Greer that net neutrality has more to do with bandwidth than civil rights…

“If Comcast, AT&T and Verizon were actually so concerned with these connection and bandwidth issues…,”she scoffs, “…then the first thing they could do is actually build up all the infrastructure they promised to build up with the massive tax subsidies they got from the US government.”

Point taken.

Greer adds that the US has some of the worst internet in the world, something its cable companies had the audacity to use as an actual bargaining chip.

“They’ve promised to build better networks and then hold it over our heads as a threat: if you have net neutrality we won’t build them. But the public won’t accept that. The public wants access to the entire internet.”

It may be worth winding back the clocks a year, at which time it seemed like net neutrality’s days were numbered, as the FCC seemed set to let the cable companies carve US connectivity into fast and slow lanes.

Unsurprisingly, a popular movement spearheaded by internet activist group Fight for the Future (and with Greer as campaign director) sprung up to fight back. More surprising was that this movement…won. In February, the internet was re-classified by the FCC as a public utility.

The obvious question for Evan is – when so much public outcry falls on death ears –how did they do it?

“I think what was different was that we combined grass roots tactics with cutting edge technology,” she explains. “Just having the ability to create a beautiful looking landing page where people could just take access in a couple of clicks was game changing.”

Indeed, it was as if the internet thought of a way to save itself. For instance, Fight for the Future organised the famous Internet Slowdown Day, where it developed a widget anyone could put on their website, displaying the ‘spinning wheel of death’ symbol (see above) alongside a message. “On the day of the protest alone, this resulted in three quarters of a million comments going to the FCC. You can ask them but I’m pretty sure that’s a record.”

Then there was the tool Fight for the Future built that meant phone complaints to the FCC went directly to the desks of the thirty key decision makers, circumventing the switchboards.

“Thirty people getting 50,000 phone calls basically means their phones are ringing off the hook for an entire month.”

The irony is that, without net neutrality, a campaign such as this might not even have been possible. “There’s no way an organisation like ours could pay fast lane rates.”

For all of Fight for the Future’s success, however, when you’re up against an industry as large as cable (with its legions of lawyers and lobbyists), you can only really ever hope to win battles — rather than wars.

“What we’re seeing now is different politicians posturing and talking about undermining or undoing the FCC’s decision. How much of a threat do I think those things are? I think anything can happen in Washington DC: it’s a bizarre place. What I do know is that the public is extremely aware of this issue now, far more than it was a year ago, and I think any attempt to undo the people’s will on this will be met with fierce resistance and they will eventually fail.”

This, you can be sure, isn’t empty defiance: it’s fighting talk from a campaign that’s used to winning.

Evan will be delivering a keynote at Broadband World Forum (20-22 October, London) on Protecting the Freedom of Speech for our Generation. 

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