Why Silicon Valley isn't fighting to save the Internet (yet)

Net neutrality explained, once & for all
Net neutrality explained, once & for all

The Raging Grannies were surprised to still be fighting over net neutrality in 2017.

"We thought we'd never have to pull this out again," one member of the singing activist group said at a tech industry rally against President Trump in San Francisco earlier this month.

Then the Grannies launched into their protest song: "Say to Comcast, to Verizon and to AT&T: Hands off the Internet, it must be free."

The chant stood out at the protest, as the gathering mostly focused on Silicon Valley's fight with Trump over the travel ban. It also stands out as one of the few moments since Trump's inauguration when net neutrality took center stage in Silicon Valley.

The net neutrality rules, approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015, are intended to keep the Internet open and fair. The rules prevent Internet providers from playing favorites by deliberately speeding up or slowing down traffic from specific websites and apps.

Now net neutrality is under siege. Ajit Pai, Trump's pick to head the FCC, has called these rules a "mistake" and begun chipping away at them. On Thursday, Senate Republicans voted to repeal Internet privacy protections, prompting fears that net neutrality could be next.

"Net neutrality is on the chopping block," Democratic Senator Edward Markey said shortly before the privacy vote. "And this is their first step to ensure the few and the powerful control the Internet."

Legislators and activists may be raising alarm, but the tech industry is conspicuously silent. Tech executives, trade groups and net-neutrality advocates chalk it up to the industry facing other pressing political battles with Trump first. Some are also waiting for the threats to move from talk to action.

"I'm surprised the tech industry isn't speaking out more forcefully," Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, wrote in a blog post this month on net neutrality. "My guess," he told CNNTech, "is there are bigger problems people are focused on right now."

Related: Trump's FCC may try to roll back net neutrality. Here's why that matters

The industry has entered legal fights against Trump over immigration and transgender rights. At the same time, it's trying to build bridges with the new administration on key business issues like tax reform and regulations.

"Immigration, trade, the international economic order, cybersecurity, privacy, and lots more are in play. So we do need to prioritize somewhat," says Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that counts Facebook (FB), Google (GOOGL) and Amazon (AMZN) as members.

"[Net neutrality] isn't a low priority, it's more a question of timing and impact potential," he adds. "A lot of things are happening quickly where the window of opportunity to have influence is immediate." 

net neutrality fight

In 2014, dozens of tech companies staged an Internet Slowdown Day to call attention to the issue, with big companies like Netflix (NFLX) leading the charge. There were also offline protests. Demonstrators even showed up at the home of then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

Black and others say they are waiting for a more imminent threat to net neutrality that could serve as a call to action. That moment may come if Congressional Republicans push for legislation to overhaul the rules, or if the FCC initiates a new rulemaking process.

"Thus far it has just been FCC and Congressional Republican saber rattling," says Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, a public-interest group that helped lead the previous fight for net neutrality.

The FCC has reversed a net-neutrality transparency rule and looked the other way as providers treat their own video services more favorably by not counting video streaming activity toward data plans.

Even if the agency doesn't gut the remaining rules, there's a risk it could undermine net neutrality by doing nothing.

Related: Silicon Valley's impossible balancing act with Trump

"What we're seeing is possibly an agency that is not going to enforce net neutrality rules that exist, which is different than changing the rules themselves. It's equally problematic, frankly," says Denelle Dixon-Thayer, chief legal and business officer at Mozilla.

Mozilla is one of the few tech companies that has spoken up repeatedly on net neutrality since the election. But Dixon-Thayer also endorses "waiting to see where is the best place to put that fight."

While there's lots of talk about the "fight," some net neutrality advocates worry there may be less motivation to rally this time, given the clear opposition from the Republican Congress and new FCC chairman.

"It's the classic politics of resignation," says Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and early supporter of net neutrality. "Most people... pick fights they know they can convince people they can win."

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