Protest in favor of net neutrality staged in Canton
Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 2:57 pm

Protesters display signs against ending net neutrality.

By MATT LINDSEY

CANTON – About a dozen protesters turned out today at Russell Cellular, 5933 U.S Highway 11 (Verizon) to protest the overturning by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of Open Internet laws, also known as net neutrality rules, that were approved two years ago.

The FCC, headed by Verizon-lawyer-turned-FCC-Chairman Ajit Pai, intends to vote Dec. 14 to end net neutrality "and the internet as we know it," event organizers said.

Pai’s former employer, Verizon, is one of a few beneficiaries of this change, says Canton resident Wendi Haugh of Write the Power NY 21, a local advocacy group.

“I am used to easy access,” said protestor David Duff of Macomb. He said the potential that the internet could be taken over by for profit entities is “chilling.”

Write the Power NY 21 aims to hold officials accountable on issues of social justice, equity, and civic responsibility. The group has protested the travel ban on Muslims, the repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act, and the proposed federal tax reforms.

Ben Landry, whose wife Sara Schaff founded the local Write the Power chapter, says most members are “left-leaning” but generally do not support any particular candidate.

He said the group serves as an advocate to contact local politicians about topics that impact human rights and are detrimental to the country.

“Write the Power NY 21 was founded on the principle of supporting diversity,” Landry said.

Haugh, a Write the Power NY 21 member said, “I became involved because I have been following the issue in the news, and I have grown more and more concerned that net neutrality will be overturned, and that this could have serious consequences for consumers, for citizens and for small businesses,” said Haugh.

Internet providers could charge for access to certain websites similar to how TV cable services work and how there are different packages for viewers to choose from. Separate fees could be charges for gaming, social media and other areas of the internet. One possible outcome could be that the more a person pays, the more access they would get.

Several politicians whose districts cover St. Lawrence Country are opposed to the reversal of net neutrality.

New York U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, state Assemblywoman Addie Jenne and Congresswoman Elise Stefanik all expressed their concerns about the negative impact net neutrality could have on local businesses and residents.

"I am vehemently opposed to rolling back the protections for my constituents,” Jenne said.

Local Protest

“FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says that net neutrality rules are a burdensome government intervention in what should be a free market and are preventing telecoms like Verizon and Time Warner Cable from making the profits they need to invest in faster and better service,” Haugh said. “First, there is no free market regarding internet access; I have only two choices where I live, and I don't like either of them very much, but I do need access to the internet. Second, these are already very profitable companies, and yet we get relatively poor service for mobile internet.”

Haugh is hopeful public protests will influence the FCC’s decision.

Protesters Chuck and Sue Bolesh of Potsdam said they do not think the protests will impact the outcome of the FCC’s vote -- but, if people stop protesting, more and more will be taken away from citizens.

“So far, they (FCC) are refusing to delay the scheduled December 14 vote despite evidence that many of the comments submitted during the public comment process were fake,” Haugh said.

New York State Attorney General Eric Scheiderman is currently investigating this and has found that thousands of New Yorkers had comments in support of overturning net neutrality submitted in their names, according to recent reports.

“Since the FCC doesn't seem to care about the integrity of the process, they may not care about the very widespread public opposition, but nonetheless, it's crucial to express that opposition in the hope that the FCC will change course,” Haugh said.

What happens following the vote depends on what telecom companies decide to do in response, Haugh said.

“One major concern is that telecoms may establish fast lanes which only larger companies can afford to access, making it harder for smaller businesses and start-ups to compete. Another concern is that telecoms may slow down content from companies which compete with their own offerings (Time Warner Cable could slow down Netflix, which is a competitor to its television business). Another concern is that telecoms might block sites which they oppose for political or economic reasons. Finally, there are concerns that companies may charge consumers more for faster access to particular sites or to collections of sites (such as social media or streaming video).

“Certainly the fact that the major supporters of ending net neutrality are telecoms (while the far greater number of companies with internet-based businesses are widely opposed) has me concerned about what they plan to do without net neutrality,” Haugh said.

“I am against the corporatization of the internet and companies turning the internet into a private toll road,” Landry said.

The Boleshes said calls to FCC officials, including Pai, went unanswered and listed numbers were either no longer active or mailboxes were full and it was impossible to leave a message.

Mrs. Bolesh said she has had similar results trying to contact Elise Stefanik. “Elise is inconsistent” in her voting,” she said. The Bolesh’s feel that Stefanik follows the money.

“I prefer the status quo,” Duff said. “Different (internet) speed levels determined by corporations is disturbing.”

Local Politicians Weigh In

New York’s U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, have played important roles in winning and then defending net neutrality. In 2014, they co-signed a letter with other senators arguing that broadband internet should be classified as a telecommunications service -- a kind of utility -- because it is so essential to the economy and to public life.

After millions of public comments and much mobilizing, the FCC voted to classify broadband as a telecommunications service and to ensure net neutrality in a ruling which came into force June 12, 2015.

North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik believes an open internet is critical to promoting prosperity and innovation with the power to enhance our lives, communities, and markets.

“The internet is an essential resource and Americans should have access to the information they want, not the information specific entities choose to make available,” she said in an email to North Country This Week.

She also believes that it is now Congress’s responsibility to pass legislation that codifies in law the principles of net neutrality to preserve an open internet and ensure that companies can invest in a robust broadband infrastructure.

Stefanik says she will continue to monitor the FCC's process closely while listening to feedback from consumers, constituents, and broadband internet service providers in the North Country.

“While this is a decision being made at the federal level and is outside the purview of the state Legislature, it is clearly a regulation change that could negatively impact North Country residents,” Assemblywoman Jenne said.

She added that net neutrality has been good for democracy and good for all businesses. “Repealing rules that prohibit internet service providers from blocking websites or apps at their whim or degrading service so much that it doesn't work well is not in our best interest. It again is putting too much power in the hands of too few big internet service providers."

Net Neutrality Impact

Net neutrality laws are what keep the internet accessible to anyone, regardless of income, according to supporters. Supporters of net neutrality say it is essential to prevent a digital divide between internet users who can afford to pay to access all information online and those who cannot afford it. Without net neutrality, most online activity could see slower service and higher monthly fees, at the discretion of internet providers, supporters say.

Many net neutrality advocates, which included members of the public, numerous technology companies, civil liberty activists, small business advocates — came together July 12 to unite against Pai and the pending repeal of net neutrality regulations.

The Net Neutrality Day of Action (July 12) saw websites like Netflix, Reddit, OKCupid, and Pornhub, display messages defending an open internet. Millions of comments were posted on the FCC system and hundreds of thousands signed petitions.

This paved the way for a series of protests planned before the FCC vote. The vote is scheduled for Dec. 14. Democrats called for a delay in the net neutrality vote amid fake comment controversy, but the FCC rejected the plea.

Signs at the protest ranged from questioning why the former attorney for Verizon is heading the Federal Communications Commission, how to keep the internet free and accessible to all, and the role corporate greed.