Certain unwritten rules have governed the Internet. One of them — which the Obama administration actually made a written rule – is Net Neutrality. It means that the Internet should be free. Everyone should have equal access.
Think of the Internet as a public good, like clean water. The faucet is your web browser. What flows from it isn’t water but information. Net Neutrality says everyone ought to be able to turn on the tap, no charge. No one ought to be denied information because they’re too poor to pay. And no one ought to be able to jump the queue and pay to “upgrade” to a more generous flow.
At least that was how it worked until December 14. On that date, Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, announced the administration would be enacting a piece of legislation called the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order.” It meant that, theoretically, telecom giants like AT & T and Verizon could now do whatever they want. They could speed up or impede the content passing through their gate, favoring the providers that slipped them a few Benjamins. The end of Net Neutrality in the US was nigh.
“Brace for the Arrival of Internet Fast Lanes and Slow Lanes,” wrote The Associated Press.
Aha, thought Rob Bliss, a young Internet videographer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had been fuming about the FCC’s move. Now that’s a metaphor he could work with.
Bliss cooked up a protest action. He looked into bicycle rentals and stores that sell those orange traffic cones. And then he booked a cheap hotel, lined up a crew, and bought a ticket to Washington.
But before he left, Bliss issued a video press release. In it he used the same language as Ajit Pai.
“Without anyone’s permission, I’ll be transforming how the FCC lives and works by creating slow AND fast lanes of traffic – right on their street.
“But for just five dollars a month, drivers can upgrade themselves, to priority access.”
Cut to January 18, 2018. In the early morning, Bliss attached a GoPro to his bike helmet. He pinned a sign to the back of his jacket: “Ask Me About our 12th Street 5-dollar a month priority Access Plan.”
He plonked down a whole row of cones (four Home Depots’ worth) blocking one lane of 12th street, the length of the entire city block in front of the FCC Building.
And then he began to cycle, verrry slowly, down the one lane still open, as cars started backing up behind him.
People rolled down their windows and issued choice words.
“Yo, you’re blocking traffic!”
“Look, you can buy a five-dollar pass and the other lane will be opened for you,” Bliss would explain.
Most people didn’t seem to get the point. That’s because Bliss stayed in character. He stuck to satire. And so he just looked like some doofus entrepreneur.
“Do you intend to continue disrupting traffic?” a cop asked.
“The thing is,” Bliss told him, “is that if I let everyone go at a normal speed, no one would buy my passes. You know what I’m saying?”
At one point a different cop walked down the line, picking up Bliss’s cones and heaving them onto the verge. “You gotta knock that off,” the cop told him. “Quit doing childish stuff.”
“I need those cones, though,” said Bliss softly.
“No you don’t!” the cop snapped. “If you put your hands on them I’ll lock your ass up.”
The thing is, Bliss already had what he needed: a little movie. One that explained what he was doing. And what the FCC was doing and why it was undemocratic. A little bit of propaganda-for-the-good-guys that was funny and hook-y and contagious.
It had been viewed 175,000 times.
And that is the true value of protest in the age of the Net. The action itself is perishable, but the video evidence persists. And the message gets amplified as more and more people share it.
Now just hope you never have to pay to see it.