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The Long Fight for the Future of the Internet

The struggle for net neutrality was won — but now it’s back, and citizen interest is waning

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Robert Armola really didn’t want to be at this town hall. Hundreds of people had packed into the Mesa Convention Center on April 13 to hurl rapid-fire questions and comments at Jeff Flake, the junior U.S. senator from Arizona, who was returning to his constituents for the first time since Donald Trump’s inauguration. As Flake fielded passionate questions from constituents, an angry murmuring hummed, spiking into deafening boos when he talked about education reform or defunding Planned Parenthood. Attendees were given red and green placards to raise to depict their approval (green) or disapproval (red) of Flake’s statements. The effect of all of them stabbing the air in unison was that of a raucous crowd at a college basketball game trying to rattle a player at the free throw line. (A teenager in a chicken suit who kept the crowd riled up added to the away-game atmosphere.) Every few minutes, an anonymous voice in the audience found reason to bellow, “Bullshit!”

Armola, 33, says he has anxiety and doesn’t like large groups. But he felt the need to step out of his comfort zone and make his voice heard in person. So he drove to the convention center after work and for 50 vitriolic minutes waited patiently for the opportunity to ask his question. He stumbled over the opening words of his prepared statement — the crowd, unsure yet whether he was a friend or an enemy, waited in expectant silence. Armola cleared his throat and started over:

“Title II net neutrality prevents Comcast, who owns MSNBC and whose executives have donated large amounts to Democrats, from slowing down traffic to Breitbart, Infowars, and Fox News’s websites, while speeding up traffic to The New York Times, Mother Jones, and Huffington Post. Almost 4 million internet users supported Title II net neutrality. Senator Flake, as your constituent, I’d like to know what you plan to do to defend Title II net neutrality, which protects our right to a free and open internet.” (You can hear Armola at the 50-minute mark of this video.)

The audience offered polite but dispassionate applause. Flake, happy to field a question that didn’t reside on a cultural third rail, began by explaining that the current regulatory framework for the internet was overly burdensome because it treated internet service providers (ISPs) like utilities. “I agree with that,” Armola shot back. “It should be a utility.”

This was one small encounter in a decades-long debate about who gets to control the internet, a system that is by its nature decentralized. For as long as the internet has been a place where people could make money, there has been a tension between corporate interests in monetizing online activity and longstanding ideals that the internet should be free. Today this tension is largely framed around the debate about net neutrality, the notion that all types of data online should be delivered equally, without being blocked, slowed down, or otherwise tampered with by an ISP.

It’s a boring topic that becomes more important every day, as more conversation, commerce, and content migrates from the physical world to online spaces. Without strong rules protecting net neutrality, its advocates say, ISPs would have free reign to prioritize certain parts of the internet in so-called “fast lanes” and extract fees from people or companies that wanted their content served at top speeds. Such fast lanes could reorganize the internet, a broadly democratizing technological force, into something more similar to cable television, where substantial financial investment and relationships with powerful corporations are necessary to reach a wide audience. Opponents of regulation say that the internet managed to flourish without government intervention just fine and that open-internet activists are portending a digital doomsday that won’t come to pass; the marketplace knows what’s best.

This longstanding fight has now been thrust back into the national spotlight. Last Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled a plan to roll back a 2015 FCC decision to regulate internet service providers as utilities under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. The shift to utility-like regulation came after an intense yearlong debate that included millions of online comments, public protests, and an advocacy push by President Obama. Trying to undo that hard-fought victory could spark an even more impassioned response, and Pai knows it. “Make no mistake about it: This is a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win,” he said.

It would be easy to frame the battle over net neutrality as a typical partisan dispute; Pai was named chairman by Trump, while Tom Wheeler, the chairman who pushed through the Title II reclassification, was tapped by Obama. You can also view it as a shadow war between corporate giants: Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T vehemently oppose net neutrality regulations, while companies like Google and Netflix have historically been vocal proponents.

But it’s often been everyday people who have played the most critical role in shaping the internet’s destiny. Hackers, activists, Wikipedia editors, YouTube creators, and even John Oliver fans have all played roles in influencing the trajectory of this fragile gathering place. Even though both the ISPs who build the internet’s pipes and the tech giants who organize its content are trending toward monopolization, individuals still hold a huge influence over its future.

The question in 2017 is whether they will choose to wield that influence. At a time when health care, immigration policy, and environmental regulations are all facing drastic change, convincing people they need to care about complex internet laws may prove tougher this time. And the iconic tech companies that have played key roles in generating public awareness about threats to internet freedom are increasingly positioning themselves as too big to fail. With various competing causes and few name-brand leaders to latch onto, it’s easy to see how bills like the GOP-backed effort to limit citizens’ internet privacy manage to slip under the radar. The new measure, which allows ISPs to sell their customers’ data to advertisers without asking for permission, likely would have caused a firestorm a year ago. Instead, it sailed through Congress in March with little deliberation.

If the internet is to be “saved,” as it has been in the past, the responsibility will fall on its everyday users — people like Armola. “I felt like it was my duty,” he says of his trip to the town hall. “I had a feeling that if I didn’t go, no one was going to bring it up to him.”

History shows that the internet, a powerful tool for protest and social organizing, has a habit of fending off its own worst-case scenarios. Looking at how previous fights were won helps us understand the key role citizens play in shaping internet policy — and why their role in this year’s battle over the future of the online world will be more important than ever.

Before 1996, the internet and the “real world” existed in parallel universes. The internet was a collection of Usenet groups, email newsletters, and crude, text-filled pages linked together on the early World Wide Web. In the real world, Bryant Gumbel couldn’t even figure out how to pronounce an email address. “During that era, I would talk to people about the internet, and it was like I had visited some foreign country and I was coming back to tell them all about that wondrous place,” says Shabbir Safdar, an internet activist of that era. “At the time, it was definitely a foreign thing.”

But in 1996, the U.S. government made a digital land grab. America was in the throes of one of its many pornography scares, this one crystallized by a Time magazine cover from the year before that featured a pasty preteen bathed in the illicit glow of a desktop computer, with a headline that screamed “CYBERPORN.” To save the children from smut, Congress drafted a bipartisan bill called the Communications Decency Act (part of a larger overhaul of cable and phone regulations known as the Telecommunications Act of 1996) that aimed to criminalize online content that was deemed indecent or obscene by vague “contemporary community standards.” It was an attempt to centralize authority over a decentralized system.

The internet was a smaller place back then, but it already had a legion of staunch defenders, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Safdar’s Voters Telecommunications Watch. As Congress deliberated the bill, these groups held rallies in San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin; encouraged people to write their legislators; and even issued guides for how to have an effective face-to-face meeting with a representative.

Their efforts failed. The measure was approved overwhelmingly by Congress on February 1. The activists decided they needed to craft a more memorable form of protest. “If you look at media coverage from that era, there was always this discussion of censorship with redacted porn as the visual — a picture of Pamela Anderson from the internet with black bars over her breasts,” Safdar says. “The idea was to go, ‘What can we do to create a compelling visual that people can participate in that will change and reframe the issue?’ And the answer was, What if we turned all these webpages black?”

On February 8, when President Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act into law, internet activists launched the Black World Wide Web protest (also known as “Black Thursday”). Thousands of websites turned their pages black, a jarring change from the cornucopia of garish colors that defined early web design. Safdar’s organization helped coordinate the efforts of advocacy groups and recruit webmasters to join the protest. The biggest website they hooked was a fast-growing web portal called Yahoo. “That was pretty much when we knew we were seeing something incredibly unique in our lifetime,” he says.

The demonstration attracted mainstream attention, and Safdar was quoted in The New York Times and Wired (a few choice ’90s phrasings from that Times piece: “the global computer network known as the Internet”; “information site, or home page”; “on-line”). The law had passed, but the internet community had also been galvanized. “It was a rush,” Safdar says. “A significant number of people participated and a significant number of people noticed. … You can draw a somewhat crooked walk from what we did in ’96 to what’s happening today.”

The day the internet went dark, a man named John Barlow published its new guiding light. A founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Barlow had become an important early internet philosopher, which is how he found himself in Switzerland in 1996, drinking champagne with the political and financial elite at the annual Davos World Economic Forum. In the middle of one of the event’s many parties, he penned an 844-word missive against the new U.S. law, arguing that the internet was the “new home of Mind” and not bound by the coercive power of governments, or as he called them, the “weary giants of flesh and steel.” He emailed the essay to 600 friends; before long, it was posted on thousands of pages across the web. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace became something of a foundational document for open-internet advocates (and techno-utopia libertarians).

“It was known to most people who spent time online at that period and so was a focal rallying point,” says Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who studies the intersection of hacker culture and politics. “In some ways today, even people who realize that maybe it was kind of naive nevertheless aspire to ensuring that some elements of the internet are a free and open space.”

In one sense, February 8, 1996, was a setback for internet activists, with the disputed porn bill becoming law. (Portions of it were thrown out by the Supreme Court in 1997.) But the day also yielded the document that would help frame open-internet rhetoric going forward, and the protest that set a blueprint for an effective means of digital organizing. “It was the point where the world suddenly realizes that the internet is not this separate thing,” says Mathias Klang, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies political communication and digital rights. “It’s part of everyday life. That’s when large-scale protests become a thing because by changing the internet, you’re changing everybody’s lives.”

As one of the first major online protests, the blackout showed that the government would not be able to change the principles of the internet without vehement blowback, a lesson that’s become increasingly obvious in the ensuing decades. “You protest partly to change policy, but sometimes you protest to create, expand, and energize your movement,” Safdar says. “And even if you lose, if you did those things you win.”

For a long time after the ’96 blackout, the internet was at relative peace in the United States. Users of specific sites would revolt when their online community was acquired by a corporate giant or stripped of rights by a terms-of-service change, but large-scale protests over broad tech policy did not spill into the mainstream.

Nevertheless, the 2000s were a critical decade in cementing the view, both in the government and among consumers who had never heard the term “net neutrality,” that the internet must doggedly protect openness. In Washington, the FCC first embraced the tenets of net neutrality in 2005, arguing that consumers had a right to access the content of their choice. But the commission didn’t have the legal authority to force ISPs to adhere to its guidelines, so obviously they didn’t. Then–SBC Communications CEO Ed Whitacre got a little too candid when he told BusinessWeek that he felt that companies like Google and Yahoo should pay a fee to “use [his] pipes.” (SBC, now known as AT&T, later walked back the comment.) Comcast got caught throttling BitTorrent traffic in 2007 (after first lying about it), sparking a years-long legal battle over the FCC’s authority to punish the company.

These conflicts were mostly the domain of tech policy wonks, but the guiding ethos of a free and open internet was simultaneously spreading to the broader online community. The same year the FCC took up the mantle of net neutrality, the photo-sharing website Flickr was purchased by Yahoo; the size of the English-language Wikipedia doubled to nearly 900,000 entries; and a guy posted a video of himself at the zoo on a brand-new site called YouTube. The internet was transforming into a place where collaboration was the norm and creativity could spread at exponential speed. Even if people sharing photos on Flickr had never heard of net neutrality, they were coming to understand its value, says McGill’s Gabriella Coleman. The argument for protecting net neutrality resonates today only because people deeply cherish the online platforms where they congregate.

Wikipedia, in particular, captured the innovative potential of the open internet and made its impact clear to a huge audience. The collaborative editing process of the online encyclopedia in many ways mirrored procedures, such as requests for comment, that had been used to draft technical standards for the internet for decades. “A lot of the software that runs the internet is free and open-source,” Coleman says. “That was pretty esoteric and geeky, and most people really didn’t know what that meant. … [Wikipedia] was a really important vector for some of these values to get out there in a more broad way.”

Fittingly, Wikipedia was at the center of the next huge internet protest, one that echoed the 1996 blackout. In the fall of 2011, Congress was considering a pair of bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act — aimed at stamping out foreign piracy havens like The Pirate Bay. Backed by Hollywood, the recording industry, and many media giants, the bills also could have made U.S. websites legally liable for copyright-infringing content on their sites. Tech companies argued that the broad language in the bills could lead to mass censorship and allow the government to block access to certain sites wholesale.

In December of that year, Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales started a talk page to discuss with members of the community what action Wikipedia should take against the bill. He noted that users of the Italian version of Wikipedia had staged an effective blackout a few months prior over a proposed law that could limit the site’s editorial independence. “My own view is that a community strike was very powerful and successful in Italy and could be even more powerful in this case,” he wrote. “At the same time, it’s of course a very, very big deal to do something like this, it is unprecedented for English Wikipedia.”

He put the idea up for an informal straw poll. Overwhelmingly, Wikipedians favored taking some sort of political action against SOPA and PIPA. Over the course of the next month, through a series of polls and discussions, they collectively agreed upon a plan. For 24 hours beginning at midnight ET on January 18, 2012, the English version of Wikipedia was blacked out globally. In its place stood a somber splash page titled, “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.” Even the design of the page, which featured the Wikipedia “W” casting an ominous shadow across much of the screen, was workshopped heavily by the Wikipedia community. “The way Wikipedia would participate was something that was decided by Wikipedians,” says Stephen LaPorte, senior legal counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia. “It’s kind of a landmark for them because it shows when you do something in a really participatory way and you provide people the right tools and it’s an issue that matters that much to people, you can have an impact.”

It wasn’t just Wikipedia that went dark. Reddit also blacked out its site for 12 hours, and Google placed a black bar over the logo on its home page as an act of defiance. Thousands of websites altered their sites to speak out against SOPA and PIPA on the same day. The bill not only dominated the news cycle but the very fabric of the internet. “Most of the giants of the internet were somehow visually signaling their discontent with an article of proposed U.S. policy,” says John Logie, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied the use of visual imagery in online protests. “From the point that that protest went live, you saw senators who had previously stated their support for SOPA and/or PIPA … rush to microphones in order to distance themselves from SOPA and PIPA. I think it went from a sure winner to a sure loser within the space of a day.”

Internet regulation — formerly among the world’s most sleep-inducing topics — was having a moment. The online platforms that had risen up in the mid-2000s and became vital to everyday life had managed to convince a broader swath of the population that internet freedom was worth caring about. “People who just like to share cultural material, who make stuff on the internet — that population grew quite a bit,” says Coleman. “And a lot of those people care about the internet in the way that hippies care about the environment. They have some relation to the internet that may not be as technically deep as a hacker, but it’s more than just the regular Joe and Jane.”

Ryan Davis, a friend of mine who was a graduate student at the University of Alabama during SOPA, was one of those creatives pulled into the internet freedom fight at that time. After learning about the SOPA protest on YouTube, where he regularly posted his music, he called both of his senators and read lengthy statements asking them to vote against SOPA and PIPA. “The ability to scale more quickly without having to move to New York, Atlanta, L.A., or Chicago specifically exists because of what I can do on the internet at scale for low cost,” says Davis, who lives in Kansas City. “So that was personal, the risk of large organizations making the internet harder to access for certain groups of people.”

In 2014, those organizations found out just how big the army of internet protectors had grown.

“I would like to state for the record that I am not a dingo,” former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said at a press conference in June 2014. It was a strange sign that internet activism was growing ever more powerful.

Before Wheeler was the hero of net neutrality advocates, he was their punching bag. The FCC’s open-internet regulations, under legal attack by the ISPs for years, were struck down by a federal appeals court in January 2014. Wheeler’s initial proposal to replace the old net neutrality rules would have allowed internet service providers to charge content creators for faster delivery speeds. The plan sparked an immediate outcry from internet freedom activists, the tech press, and, surprisingly, a late-night comedian.

John Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight, was only five episodes old when it decided to tackle net neutrality. The comedic news half hour was not unique in tone — Oliver was once a Daily Show correspondent, after all — but its format was fresh. Instead of acting as a drive-by critique of the news of the day and the cable networks that cover it, the show addressed the events of the moment in-depth, devoting 10 to 15 minutes to picking apart a single topic. It was like a vulgar 60 Minutes. Oliver and his writers weren’t afraid to wade into tech wonkiness — the fourth episode of Last Week Tonight centered on a court ruling in Spain that allowed internet users to scrub their histories from Google searches, known as the Right to Be Forgotten.

On June 1, Oliver spent more than 13 minutes deriding cable companies for trying to institute fast lanes on the internet and the FCC for seemingly being willing to play ball. (The key line: “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”) He noted the absurdity of having Wheeler, a former cable lobbyist, be the final arbiter in regulating the cable industry: “That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.” Hence Wheeler’s later reference to the Australian animal.

More important than the jokes, though, was Oliver’s call to action. He asked the “monsters” of internet comment sections (his words, not mine) to turn their anger on the FCC, which was seeking public feedback about its net neutrality proposal at the time. “Seize your moment, my lovely trolls,” he said. “Turn on Caps Lock and fly, my pretties!”

The FCC had already been accepting comments for two weeks, but public interest had seemingly dissipated. The agency received just 3,076 comments about net neutrality the week before the sketch debuted. The week after, it received 79,838. The day after Last Week Tonight aired, the FCC’s commenting system crashed as Oliver’s video ricocheted around the internet and thousands of people suddenly realized their passion for internet freedom.

“A huge factor was it made it into the popular culture,” says Gigi Sohn, who served as a counselor to Wheeler at the FCC and cofounded the open internet advocacy organization Public Knowledge. “We had quite a few comments, but once Oliver covered it, it was just like it exploded. … I think that was the seminal moment.”

Sohn recalls a level of public engagement in the 2014 net neutrality debate that she’d never seen. The agency’s phones rang constantly. People camped out in front of the FCC’s offices in a campaign modeled after Occupy Wall Street. One day protesters went to Wheeler’s home and laid down in front of his car in an act of defiance, she says. (He walked more than a mile to the Metro to get to work.)

The political agitation seeped over to the Capitol as well. “We heard from Hill offices that they got more calls on net neutrality than they got calls on the Affordable Care Act,” Sohn says. “Young people might not call about the Affordable Care Act, but they’re sure as hell gonna call if you’re going to screw around with their internet.”

This, of course, was not all John Oliver’s doing. Internet advocacy organizations such as Free Press and Fight for the Future organized rallies, jammed up government phone lines, and instructed people how to write the FCC or Congress. And other emergent groups helped to reframe the scope of net neutrality’s impact as well. Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, has been engaged with the net neutrality debate for a decade, viewing it through the frame of civil rights. “Because of a free and open internet that didn’t create a second-class internet for different people … that was the thing that gave us the digital oxygen to breathe,” says Brandi Collins, senior campaign director for the group. “It allowed for this larger movement for black lives to thrive and exist. It’s allowed for people who otherwise are not heard in mainstream media to be heard and felt.”

Collins notes that while an internet divided between slow and fast services would likely disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color, those are the groups least likely to be keyed into the wonky net neutrality debate. “It was extremely important for us to make sure that this wasn’t just a Beltway discussion but that we were taking it essentially to the streets and that people across the country were able to weigh in,” she says. “The internet in some ways is like a life-or-death issue for many of us fighting for equality. People feel that, even if they don’t feel the term ‘net neutrality.’”

Internet companies also participated in the 2014 fight, though in a diminished role compared with the protests against SOPA and PIPA. Giants such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook issued a letter to the FCC asking that it preserve the open internet. Later in the year, Netflix was the biggest name to participate in the Internet Slowdown protest, when websites placed buffering icons on their websites as a symbol of a future internet filled with slow lanes (the sites didn’t actually restrict or degrade their service the way Wikipedia did to fight the antipiracy bills).

These combined actions had a major collective impact. In February 2015, Wheeler unveiled a totally overhauled set of net neutrality regulations that reclassified ISPs as utilities, giving the FCC wide and binding authority to regulate their actions. Even activists who had been calling for Title II reclassification for years were shocked. The ISPs sued almost immediately. Wheeler was no longer a dingo; instead, The Verge christened him the Dragonslayer.

There were a lot of factors at play in Wheeler’s about-face, and typical Washington machinations were part of it. According to a behind-the-scenes account by The Wall Street Journal, smaller internet firms such as Etsy, Tumblr, and Kickstarter successfully lobbied the White House to support ISP regulation in secret. Obama then publicly endorsed strong regulation in a November 2014 video statement. Wheeler, who had been seeking a compromise more palatable to the ISPs, fell in line behind the president. Critics accused the White House of inappropriate meddling in the deliberations of an independent agency.

However Wheeler arrived at his final decision, the first inflection point came because a lot of regular people were mad on the internet. In total, the FCC received 3.7 million public comments about its net neutrality proposal. “When the [net neutrality] proceedings started, the chairman was not in the place that the public interest community wanted him to be,” Sohn says. “We would get thousands of emails at 11 o’clock at night. Phone calls ringing off the hook. It was just months and months and months of this constant onslaught. And he had to look at it anew.”

Sohn was with Tom Wheeler in New York on March 28 when the House of Representatives voted to undo one of the chairman’s final regulatory victories, a rule barring internet service providers from collecting and selling their customers’ browsing data without permission. Since the day Trump was elected, the rule had been on the theoretical chopping block (the president wants to get rid of two regulations for every new one that is adopted), but the speed with which Congress did away with it still shocked privacy advocates.

After years of successes rallying people to digital arms, why did activists fail to stop the privacy law? Part of the issue was speed. Thanks to a rarely used legislative weapon called the Congressional Review Act, Congress can quickly eliminate federal agency rules with little deliberation. While SOPA wound its way through the House and Senate for months and the net neutrality debate occupied the entire summer of 2014, the privacy law repeal went from being introduced in the Senate to passing both chambers in less than three weeks.

“If we had one more week, I think they would have lost in the House,” says Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We generated tens of thousands of phone calls in 48 hours. You extrapolate that out four more days, you get to 100,000 to 200,000 phone calls. At that point members of Congress are like, ‘Screw this, I’m not voting on this.’”

Perhaps in a different year, the internet would have rallied faster to save itself from corporate encroachment. But the same week Congress was hustling the privacy law through its chambers, Trump was rolling back a raft of Obama-era environmental regulations and Democrats were being widely pressured to vote against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. There was simply no time to be worried about the internet. “That is a fundamental challenge right now: getting through to people,” says Falcon. “Anyone that’s advocating for an issue is going to have to compete for oxygen.”

Such is the quandary that open-internet advocates now find themselves in. In a world where the White House gins up new controversies every day and media outlets are being rewarded handsomely for covering them, there’s little room for news and causes that don’t deal directly with Trump (it’s doubtful he’ll weigh in on net neutrality with the force that Obama did). On Wednesday, when Ajit Pai made his speech relaunching the net neutrality fight, the story was fighting for attention in D.C. with Trump’s tax proposal and a new gambit to repeal Obamacare in D.C., on Twitter with the gutting of ESPN, and on Reddit with the death of director Jonathan Demme. The FCC story earned only fifth billing on the left rail of The New York Times’ home page.

The easiest way to capture the media’s attention is through spectacle — like the SOPA blackout — but today internet giants are less likely to wade into politics with the same fervor. Netflix was a poster child of the 2014 debate, arguing that the tolls it was being forced to pay by ISPs posed a long-term threat to the internet. This year, though, the company said weaker net neutrality laws were unlikely to substantially affect its profits or service quality. (Netflix now has enough money to pay to ride in a fast lane, and enough consumer loyalty to ensure that no ISP would ever make its service unusable.) Yahoo, one of the heroes of the 1996 protest, is about to be bought by Verizon. Google, meanwhile, mostly speaks about the issue these days via its D.C. trade group, the Internet Association, which also includes Facebook and Netflix. The organization supports the current Title II regulations, but there’s no way for the Internet Association to achieve the same kind of mindshare as a Google Doodle or a blacked-out website to sway public opinion. “Most of the major internet companies have kind of decided they don’t want to keep fighting this fight,” Falcon says. “If there’s more rents being charged, they’ll pay it, and frankly they’ll benefit because new players can’t break into the market at that point.” Activists expect smaller internet companies to play a bigger role. The accelerators Y Combinator and Techstars, along with the startup advocacy group Engine, have launched a coordinated lobbying effort that includes tech firms such as Etsy, Kickstarter, and Meetup.

Individual crusaders are also playing more limited roles this go-around. The hacker group Anonymous, which helped galvanize the SOPA protests, has lost its political clout. Barlow, the author of A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, opposes utility-like regulation of the internet, along with a group of influential online “elders.” History books teach us that protest movements need charismatic heroes, but the internet’s ability to accelerate collective action has spawned powerful movements that lack discernible protagonists, from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street. It’s little wonder that protest movements about the internet are evolving in the same decentralized fashion.

The biggest challenge for net neutrality backers, though, may be that their argument largely hinges on theoreticals: If we don’t have these protections, corporations could introduce these draconian policies. That’s a tough rhetorical sell when the impact of other hot-button issues is more immediately felt. Pai and others opposed to strong net neutrality regulations believe that they overstep the government’s authority in a sphere that has thrived with a light-touch approach. “Nothing about the internet was broken in 2015,” he said in his speech. “Nothing about the law had changed. And there wasn’t a rash of internet service providers blocking customers from accessing the content, applications, or services of their choice.”

But this argument ignores the fact that the government’s ability to police the internet has been in a constant state of legal flux for at least a decade, since Comcast and the FCC were first wrangling over BitTorrent. We have yet to witness what ISPs would do if they had certainty that their plans would not run afoul of government watchdogs. “Net neutrality gives you the freedom to decide where you want to go and what you want to do on the internet without any gatekeepers deciding who gets faster speeds and who gets better quality of service,” Sohn says. “You decide the winners and losers, not Comcast and AT&T.”

If the net neutrality rules are to be saved, it will happen because individual internet users demand it. The FCC is already accepting comments on its net neutrality proposal, dubbed “Restoring Internet Freedom,” and is expected to use public input to shape changes to the policy over the coming months. Advocacy groups are hoping to get at least 1 million people to weigh in. “It’s ambitious, but we did it before,” Collins says.

The momentum might not be growing at the same speed as past political efforts, but it’s starting to build. Sean Linnihan, an 18-year-old student studying graphic design at Carthage College in Wisconsin, called and even faxed his representative about the internet privacy law. (His congressman, James Sensenbrenner, went viral for saying “Nobody’s got to use the internet” at a town hall.) Linnihan has been aware of issues surrounding internet regulation since he was a teenager during the SOPA fight. Now, as an adult, he sees a net neutrality rollback as a threat to his future career as a graphic designer, and says tech policy will inform what candidates he chooses to support.

“I think that all eliminating net neutrality would do is make a less healthy economic climate,” he says. “It will give the fat cats more money and it will take money away from the little guy. It’s definitely in my top five important issues for voting right now.”

Today’s young voters are a generation that grew up on the internet. In the coming months we’ll find out how much they care about the digital world they’ve always called home. “I think with net neutrality,” Linnihan says, “people won’t know how much it’s affecting them until it’s gone.”