As pressure on the Federal Communications Commission grows to make a final ruling on net neutrality, the big stakeholders in the issue have mobilized — sometimes in strange and deceptive ways.
One group, called Onward Internet, tends to set up huge black “Internet suggestion boxes” at busy street corners in tech centers like San Francisco and New York. The boxes are surrounded by Millennial types. A couple of them are wearing nerdy space suit costumes.
But a look at the group’s site reveals some familiar language. “The Internet is a wild, free thing,” the site says. “Unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.” This is often the rhetoric of groups working against net neutrality legislation.
You won’t find any contact information at Onward Internet’s site. You will find a cute video with dialogue like this: “The Internet was made to move data … we got blogs, likes, selfies, and memes, OMG, BRB, and TTYL.” A voiceover spends most of the time talking about how fast networks have gotten, how much data is moved over it every day, and how it’s been used to “connect industries” and “topple dictatorships.” It also mentions “LOLCats” a lot.
The advocacy group ProPublica tried for weeks to find out who was behind the group, but got nowhere until it got a lead from the employee of a company that bought street space in San Francisco for one of the group’s “suggestion box” installations. The employee said it was the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, one of the telecom industry’s biggest trade groups and one of the loudest voices against regulating net neutrality.
At first, the NCTA’s spokesman, Brian Dietz, told ProPublica: “What led you to the conclusion that this is an NCTA effort…?”
Then Dietz sent another statement:
“We’ve kept NCTA’s brand off Onward Internet because we want to collect unbiased feedback directly from individuals about what they want for the future of the Internet and how it can become even better than it is today. The cable industry is proud of our role as a leading Internet provider in the U.S. but we feel it’s important to hear directly from consumers about how they envision the future so we can work hard on delivering it.”
VentureBeat called Dietz to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Dietz said that the NCTA is indeed behind Onward Internet, and that his group is the sole backer of Onward Internet. Asked why the NCTA wanted to keep this quiet, Dietz responded: “We had always intended to put the NCTA brand on it but we wanted to collect as much unbiased feedback as we could for a few weeks before putting our name on it.”
Actually, the Onward group is asking people for statements on Twitter and via a call-in line, which could be used to make the case that people really don’t want net neutrality. I asked Dietz how the NCTA intends to use the information gathered, and for that answer he sent me to a blog post:
“[In the next few days] we’ll begin sharing the things people told us they wanted from the next 10 years of the Internet. We’ll also be creating original content that shows what we want for the next 10 years. We hope people will be pleasantly surprised to see they’re almost always the same thing.”
The NCTA has spearheaded opposition to bills that would classify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II. Such a designation would give the FCC far more power to make sure that large Internet companies like Facebook, Google, and Netflix could pay for faster Internet service, to the detriment of smaller competitors that probably can’t afford it.
The most recent, and perhaps best, of the reclassification bills came last week from Rep. Henry Waxman, the veteran Democratic House member from California. The NCTA’s Dietz posted a rebuttal to Waxman’s bill on his Twitter feed.
There are strong indications that network operators like the big telco and cable companies are already selling “Internet fast lanes.” It may be a trillion-dollar business that’s largely happening in the dark.
So groups like the NCTA have every reason to get very crafty in their public relations efforts on the issue. Convincing young people that “regulating the Internet is bad” would be a huge win.
But the real objective of the group is to create uncertainty and doubt around the issue by blurring the lines between “for” and “against.” If people are confused about the issue, lawmakers are less likely to take action. It’s a well-known political tactic to muddy the waters and preserve the status quo.