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Net neutrality protesters take to the streets

Protesters want Congress to step in and stop the FCC's vote next week to end net neutrality regulation.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Protesters gathered in front of Verizon stores around the US on Thursday in a last-ditch effort to save the rules governing net neutrality.

Protesters gathered outside a Verizon store in New York City in an effort to stop the FCC from repealing net neutrality protections.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The protests were organized by several advocacy groups, including Fight for the Future, in the hope of pressuring Republicans in Congress to stop the FCC from rolling back the controversial rules adopted in 2015 under President Barack Obama.

The FCC is expected to vote next week on a proposal that would repeal regulations prohibiting broadband and wireless companies from slowing or blocking access to the internet and banning them from charging internet companies fees to access their customers faster than competitors. The proposal will also strip the FCC of authority to regulate broadband networks, leaving policing of the internet to another federal agency, the Federal Trade Commission. (Our FAQ explaining what Net Neutrality means can be found here.)

Protesters at a rally in New York City held signs outside the Verizon store near Bryant Park stating "Net Neutrality is Freedom of Speech" and "Keep the Internet Free." There were also posts to social media using the hashtag #StoptheFCC.

In Washington, DC, protesters gathered outside the annual FCC chairman's dinner and were joined by Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who tweeted a picture of herself speaking to the crowd.

The protests are the latest sign of the public support for net neutrality, which is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally. Democrats and consumer advocacy groups argue the rules are necessary to ensure the internet service providers don't abuse their power, favoring some traffic -- like their own services -- over the competition.

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But broadband companies support FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's plan to dismantle the rules, arguing the regulation is heavy-handed and has hurt investment. Verizon was the target of the protest because Pai worked as a lawyer for the carrier before his appointment to the FCC. The company has said it has no plans to block or slow access to the internet. But Verizon has opposed the reclassification of broadband, which imposes stricter regulation on its networks.

"Like those expressing their views today, Verizon fully supports an open Internet and believe consumers should be able to use it to access lawful content when, where, and how they want," the company said in a statement.  "We've publicly committed to that before and we stand by that commitment today."

Pai, who was appointed chairman by President Donald Trump earlier this year, says the agency is returning to the same light touch regulatory regime of previous administrations including under Democrat Bill Clinton.

But supporters of net neutrality say that without rules, broadband providers will have too much control over consumers' access to the internet and will shut out competitors in favor of their own services, leading to less innovation and higher prices.

The issue has become starkly partisan in Congress with Democrats united in their calls to keep the regulations in place. Earlier this week, more than two dozen Democratic senators sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to delay the vote.

clyburn-net-neutrality-protest

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn tweeted a picture of herself speaking to protesters outside the annual FCC chairman's dinner.  

In recent weeks, it's been discovered that millions of comments on the net neutrality repeal proposal were from fake accounts and using stolen identities. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel along with New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Democrats in the US Senate have urged the FCC to postpone its vote until the comments can be examined.

"When the @FCC #NetNeutrality record is corrupted by a million comments with identity theft & half a million comments from Russia we need to stop & ask what went wrong," Rosenworcel said in a tweet Thursday. "Public integrity matters."

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