You could hear them before you could see them.
Chants and speeches echoed across State Street in Chicago’s busy Loop in the late morning of December 7. Roughly 75 protesters met in light flurries and sub-freezing temperatures to protest the December 14 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote endangering net neutrality.
Net neutrality was implemented in 2015 when the FCC ruled that internet service providers (ISPs) were “common carriers” and subject to the rules of Title II of the Telecommunications Act. In essence, this held internet providers to the same standards as utility companies that control water or electricity, and made discriminatory treatment of apps and websites (like slowing down a competitor’s site) illegal. FCC chairman—and former Verizon lawyer—Ajit Pai announced his plans to roll back those protections this past spring, and five FCC commissioners, three of whom are Republicans, will vote on Pai’s plan on December 14. They’re expected to vote along party lines, meaning net neutrality will no longer be the law of the land.
An FCC commissioner, 28 senators, and the attorney general of New York requested the vote be delayed in light of troubling issues with the statements gathered during the FCC’s public comment period. Researchers believe over a million of the comments came from bots or misrepresented identities, according to reports in Wired and other outlets. New York attorney general Eric Schniederman, who, according to The Verge, had his office’s own assistant press secretary’s identity used to submit a fake comment, is currently investigating the source.
The protest outside Verizon stores was part of a vast network of demonstrations organized by Team Internet, a coalition of digital advocacy groups Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, and Free Press. Team Internet provided infrastructure and a toolkit, allowing local organizations to arrange and hold demonstrations in their communities. At the corner of State and Monroe in Chicago, protesters flanked the entrance to the Verizon store, chanting, “No discrimination, free communication!,” “Call, post, protest!” and “Verizon—Can you hear us now?”
Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a popular progressive figure in Chicago, addressed the civil liberties at stake if net neutrality were threatened.
“A free and open internet is a fundamental right,” said Garcia, who announced last month that he is running for Congress. “Net neutrality is what makes the internet a level playing field for all voices. It means that our internet provider must treat all data the same.”
Speakers and protesters seemed most concerned about the social aspect of net neutrality. While the idea that an ISP could charge a premium for Hulu or make you purchase a music package for Spotify is an unpleasant one, it pales in comparison to the potential for censorship and the removal of an important platform for marginalized voices. Social media and the internet have already proven crucial organizing tools for activists—they were used for these very protests.
“This is the core of how we communicate, how we organize, how we speak to each other,” said Karin McKie of Indivisible Illinois, which helped organize the State Street event as well as others around Chicagoland. McKie’s passion seemed deeply personal, and for good reason: her father was deputy managing director of the FCC.
Further north, kitty-corner from the John Hancock Center, another protest formed a semicircle around the Magnificent Mile Verizon store, receiving honks from passing motorists and handing out flyers to pedestrians, some of whom even joined in the chants: “Call the FCC, keep the internet free,” “Keep your hands off our bits.”
Indivisible Illinois’ Michigan Avenue protest was joined by one organized by Patrice Michaels, a musician and lecturer who works as director of vocal studies at the University of Chicago. As an independent artist and mother whose children attended public schools, Michaels had seen first hand the benefits of free and fair access to information. She is concerned about blocking or throttling of access based on a person’s identity, ideology, or bank account.
“CPS students deserve the same access as CEOs,” she said as she handed out informational sheets to passersby.
Kofi Ademola of Black Lives Matter addressed the protesters on Michigan, driving home the essential role internet access plays in communication and dissemination of information: “We know that people of color do not have access to corporate media to talk about the violence that is being perpetrated on our bodies,” Ademola said. “Social media have been pivotal, and an integral part for us to talk about Mike Brown. For us to talk about Laquon McDonald. For us to talk about Rekia Boyd. For us to talk about the uprising and dissension happening in Ferguson because police were showing up in military equipment, with tanks. And we were able to talk about no DAPL, the Dakota Access Pipeline.”