May 13, 2014 · 4 minutes

Hashtag activists are finally having their moment. The Federal Communications Commission held a Twitter chat this afternoon to allow Gigi Sohn, its special counsel for external affairs, to explain the agency's proposed net neutrality rules to anyone with a username and a hashtag.

The chat follows weeks of harsh criticism of the FCC's original proposal, which would have allowed Internet service providers to create online "fast lanes" and "slow lanes," and comes as the agency is desperately working to prove that it wants to defend the free Internet with revised rules.

Senators, technology companies, venture capitalists, and even members of the FCC have all said that the rules are not able to support the commission's claim that it will prevent fast lanes from forming if they pass a vote later this month. Now, as protestors visit the FCC's offices with signs and "Save the Internet!" banners, the agency has given hashtag activists a chance to voice their ire and make Sohn wish she had access to Twitter's new mute feature.

The chat has now ended, but Sohn appears to have answered a fair number of questions, and has assured tweeters that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is taking their criticism to heart. (Though that doesn't explain why Wheeler hasn't responded directly to his critics, as others point out.) The hashtag wasn't co-opted by juvenile Twitter users like many social media campaigns are, and unlike the New York Police Department's misguided attempt to use Twitter in April, the public outpouring of vehement criticism of the FCC's proposed rules was not unexpected.

At least now the FCC might understand the sheer number of people worried about how its proposal will axe-murder -- or at least maim -- the Internet as it's supposed to be. A hashtag has done something besides convince people that Stephen Colbert should be taken off the air. Twitter, or at least the hashtag activists who frequent its injustice circuit, should be proud.

Pando weighs in

On the FCC’s unwillingness to defend the free Internet:

Splitting issues that could affect the foundation of the Internet and allowing companies like Comcast to hamstring the greatest technological innovation in human history — or at least the innovation just behind man-made fire and wine — because the FCC wants to focus on semantics is insane. The Internet isn’t just the series of tubes connecting Comcast’s infrastructure to our homes: it’s the whole damned thing, from the servers operated by companies like Netflix all the way down to the cables in our homes.

Comcast might not be violating net neutrality laws, but it’s certainly violating the spirit behind them. It’s about time the FCC did something about that. On the European Union’s attempts to defend the free Internet:

The legislation is meant to provide access to online services ‘without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application.’ For example, ISPs would be barred from slowing down or ‘throttling’ the speed at which one service’s videos are delivered while allowing other services to stream at normal rates. To bastardize Gertrude Stein: a byte is a byte is a byte.

Such restrictions would prevent deals like the one Comcast recently made with Netflix, which will allow the service’s videos to reach consumers faster than before. Comcast is also said to be in talks with Apple for a deal that would allow videos from its new streaming video service to reach consumers faster than videos from competitors. The Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality laws don’t apply to those deals, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, so they are allowed to continue despite the threat they pose to the free Internet. On FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s promises to defend the free Internet:

The agency is still ignoring the peering and interconnection agreements that allow companies like Comcast to charge both companies and consumers for access to its network. It’s still manned by people who fought the principles it’s now trying to defend. And it’s still the same agency whose own incompetence threatened the Internet in the first place.

So how about it: do you trust an axe-murderer willing to slaughter the free Internet in broad daylight, or do you think the FCC will do what it’s supposed to and defend the free Internet? Remember that axes leave scars, and that idealism is rarely enough to keep death at bay. On the futility of arguing about what net neutrality really means:

The terms we use to describe these issues directly affect our ability to defend the free Internet. If more people explored the ways that deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast threaten consumers instead of pointing out that they don’t technically violate net neutrality rules, we might start a conversation that the millions of people affected by these deals can understand. If the FCC can change its laws to use the right words, it might be able to protect the Internet.

But if we continue to argue about the meaning of net neutrality to defend the actions of companies threatening the very idea of the free Internet, all we’ve done is split hairs while the Internet collapsed around us. This is a time for action, not a time for pedantic arguments about ultimately meaningless terms. Photo via USMC Archives