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If you blinked, you missed yesterday’s net neutrality protest

Organizers say they reached more than 10 million users, but some of the largest tech companies seemed to hold back.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Speaks At American Enterprise Institute
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Facebook, Google, Twitter and other companies, activists and startups that rallied in support of net neutrality on Wednesday probably aren’t going to stop the Trump administration from killing the rules currently on the government’s books.

But the organizers of the so-called “day of action” insist they reached more than 10 million users with their message, while generating at least 2.1 million comments urging the Federal Communications Commission to rethink its plans. That’s a drop in the bucket, seeing as the tech companies that took part in the protest reach billions of users every day — but the event’s planners stress that they’ve touched a nerve.

The initial tally comes from Battle for the Net, a collection of liberal-leaning consumer advocates that helmed some of the Wednesday protest. Those 10 million include anyone who saw (or, more likely, just dismissed) pop-ups and banners on supporting websites like Reddit and Medium.

And Battle for the Net collected its roughly 2.1 million comments by midnight Pacific Time through its own website, using a pre-written note to the FCC that touted the need for rules that prevent internet providers like AT&T and Verizon from blocking or slowing down web traffic.

Some of the web’s largest companies — including Amazon, Facebook and Google — took a more reserved approach. They didn’t darken their webpages, like some companies did during a massive online protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, and their alerts to users weren’t always easy to find.

Instead, they pointed users toward a webpage set up by the Internet Association, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for the industry. Its activism hub sought to explain the debate around net neutrality, and it included a link to the FCC’s website where users could comment.

By the end of Wednesday, the group told Recode that its portal had attracted 1.3 million viewers, with about 500,000 web users clicking through to comment at the FCC. It is unclear, however, if those web users redirected to the agency site actually submitted anything.

On one hand, protest organizers insist that their efforts to fight FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proved resonant. The 2.1 million comments generated by Battle for the Net represented something of a record for the group, said Kurt Walters, the campaign director for Demand Progress, one of the groups that leads the coalition. When they last tried to rally web users — a 2014 protest in favor of the rules currently in place — Walters said they generated only a third of the comments that they obtained on Wednesday.

But even Walters and others involved in the “day of action” seemed aware of the obvious: That Pai, as chairman of a Republican-led agency, still has the votes to scrap the Obama administration’s open internet protections, which subject internet providers to utility-like regulation.

“We’re not naive. There’s a chance what the public wants, and what the facts show will be best for consumers, doesn’t always carry the day,” Walters told Recode. “But what we have from this historic day of activism, from all of the polling ... [is] we know this is both good policy and good politics to stand on the side of the free and open internet and Title II net neutrality.”

For now, the agency will continue to accept comments on Pai’s plans until June 17, before kicking off another round of deliberation. In total, the FCC has received 7.3 million comments in the debate from both sides of the net neutrality fight.

By Thursday morning, though, the FCC’s own comment database reflected that it had received more than 718,000 submissions related to net neutrality on July 12. That number is incomplete. Not every comment shared with the FCC immediately appears on its website. Some, when posted, have fake names, include incendiary rhetoric or don’t address the right topic. And the 718,000 comments that have been posted surely include some from those on the other side of the issue.

Among the tech leaders involved in Wednesday’s action was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who published a note on his profile calling on the FCC to preserve strong net neutrality rules — and for Congress to codify them more firmly into law. By Thursday morning, his message had attracted more than 84,000 likes. More than 5,700 Facebook users shared that post with their own friends; more than 4,000 left comments. (Consider, though, Facebook’s potential reach if it had been more aggressive: It announced two billion monthly users in June.)

Zuckerberg even personally responded to one critic, who questioned whether Facebook itself had violated net neutrality through Internet.org, a project to provide free or low-cost, but limited, web access in countries that lack broadband. In India, at least, Facebook previously had faced immense blowback for its rollout of the initiative.

“There's an important difference between blocking or charging extra for content, and providing services for free to help people who are not connected,” Zuckerberg said. “Blocking or charging extra clearly hurts people and violates net neutrality. Giving people free services just helps and does not violate net neutrality principles or the regulations in most countries.”

More than 2,400 Facebook users interacted with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s call to action. She, like Zuckerberg, also directed viewers to the Internet Association’s activism website.

Google, for its part, did not include anything near its venerated search bar. Instead, it dispatched an email to followers of its “take action” policy website, encouraging them to sound off at the FCC in defense of existing net neutrality rules. The company declined to detail again on Thursday how many users receive those alerts.

Twitter had been the most aggressive, and for the first time, it ran a promoted tweet touting one of its own policy position. But the company did not immediately release data related to its protest activities.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.