February 2, 2015

This Thursday, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler will announce that under Title II, broadband companies will be regulated as utilities. Real progress, and we should be grateful to Wheeler and President Obama for listening to the public as we made our wishes known.

But mostly, we should thank John Oliver, who turned his audience into a well-oiled net-neutrality commenting machine that turned the tide:

Monday, Nov. 10, didn’t start out well for Wheeler. Protesters from one of the more radical pro-net neutrality groups had blocked the driveway of his home in Georgetown. That same day, the president released a statement and video in which he came out squarely in favor of regulating the broadband companies like utilities. Obama had always been a proponent of net neutrality (Open Internet planks had been nailed into the Democrats’ platform in 2008 and 2012, after all), but he had never uttered the words Title II, the federal rule that gives the FCC direct authority over telecommunications services.

Wheeler, who had a week’s worth of meetings scheduled at which he had intended to sell his hybrid plan, was knocked on his heels. At a meeting with public interest advocates and representatives from the likes of Tumblr, Etsy and Google, Wheeler appeared frazzled but professional, attendees said. At one point he told a meeting of wireless executives that there was no sunlight between him and the president on the issue. By the end of the week, it was clear to attendees that he was turning away from his hybrid plan.

In the weeks since, Wheeler’s evolution to utility-style regulation has solidified. The telecom industry’s claim that Title II rules would hamper investment in new networks took a hit when Verizon’s CFO said in December that the move would “not influence the way we invest.” Verizon backed off that statement, but Sprint largely agreed when it said it would invest in wireless data networks regardless of how the FCC regulated the industry.

But it was clear Obama’s comments had been a major force in shaping the FCC rules — a fact Wheeler couldn’t help but joke about at the Federal Communications Bar Association’s swanky, year-end dinner.

“I would like to thank the Mozilla Foundation for the first draft of my remarks tonight,” the chairman said, “and President Obama for his edits.”

But it was John Oliver who unleashed the hordes:

It was a Sunday night in June when Oliver devoted 13 minutes of his show on HBO to explaining an issue that had already prompted protesters to camp outside the FCC offices (a first in the annals of the agency).

He lampooned Wheeler’s past as a cable industry leader and suggested that his pro-industry rules were the broadband equivalent of “a dingo guarding a baby.” The clip went viral (it has been viewed on YouTube almost 8 million times). Free Press rented a Jumbotron and at one point put it across the street from the FCC’s headquarters on 12th Street. The screen played testimonials on net neutrality and Oliver’s takedown.

A broad coalition of progressive groups — including Public Knowledge, Consumers Union, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Engine Advocacy, CREDO Action and the National Hispanic Media Coalition — capitalized on the sudden burst of attention to mobilize opposition.

Emails by the hundreds of thousands began to hit the FCC’s inbox.

It won't end here, of course:

Congress may well step in. Republican senator John Thune is currently working on legislation that would trump the FCC’s moves. Obama would no doubt block it but he will not be in office forever.

When and if the GOP’s net neutrality rules come to the floor, the net activists will be ready. From his home office in Boston Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, said he was under no illusion that the war was won and that he expected some backlash from the successes they had scored in this battle.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a move to try and limit the tactics we’ve used to organise online,” he said. “Whenever a tactic of protest becomes effective, there are often attempts to limit it.”

But he is confident the internet will be behind him when the next skirmish starts.

“This is about big-picture stuff,” he said. “It’s about freedom of expression, freedom of ideas. People will fight for that.”

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