WASHINGTON -- This summer the dull-sounding technology term "network neutrality" prompted street protests and viral Web campaigns, crashing the Federal Communications Commission's website with a record-breaking flood of over a million comments from the public.
Growing alarm about big companies controlling online content has led to an unprecedented amount of public participation in a phase of the FCC's regulatory process usually reserved for lawyers and policy wonks.
The firestorm was sparked by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to allow Internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon to charge companies to move their content through a speedier lane. Opponents say this "pay for play" model kills net neutrality, which means the equal treatment of all Web content without interference.
"It's effectively censorship and it's an unacceptable mode of oppression, whether governments do it or corporations," said April Glaser, a staff activist with the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Under Wheeler's proposal, companies like Google, Netflix and Skype would be able to use their deep pockets to pay extra for a faster pipe that ensures smoother, speedier streaming for their users. Public interest groups argue that this gives the big companies an unfair advantage, discriminating against other content as well as against innovative new companies that can't afford to pay the toll.
"For example, a mainstream story on CNN's site would be much faster than the website to an alternative media outlet with a piece on gun violence in an underrepresented neighborhood," Glaser said.
President Barack Obama was greeted by pro-network neutrality protesters during his visit to Silicon Valley on July 23. One demonstration drew 150 people, ranging from college students to retirees, urging the president: "Don't kill the Internet," according to Glaser.
"People have really begun to understand that Internet service providers are essentially trying to be gatekeepers of the Internet," she said. "And they don't want to be channeled toward these websites that are paying for their attention."
An explosion of public comments at the FCC is usually tied to media outrage. Singer Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show drew more than 1.4 million complaints. Until now, this level of indignation was unheard of for a policy issue that is essentially dry regulatory law-making.
Surrounded by telecommunications lobbyists in the Washington bubble, the FCC had no idea there would be such blow-back to the proposal, says Marvin Ammori, a First Amendment lawyer and Internet policy expert at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.
"Things really changed two years ago when SOPA showed the public that the Internet wasn't created by God, that the government can screw up the Web that we all use," he said, referring to the efforts against the Stop Online Piracy Act legislation in 2012 that opponents said would stifle free speech.
Bringing a technology concept like net neutrality to the public's attention is no small task, and debate remained mainly among experts and web blogs until this summer. A Pew Research Center study shows that between January and May of this year, coverage about net neutrality in national television news was "all but absent" and "sparse in most major newspapers."
This summer's public backlash created a snowball effect between the viral Internet and public figures from comedians to politicians taking a stand.
First came technology advocacy groups, asking everyday web users to consider the start-ups, nonprofits and community sites that cannot afford these pay-for-priority tolls.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation site DearFCC.org had an easy form that over 117,000 people used to submit a comment with a few keystrokes.
Others started millennial-friendly social media campaigns, like advocacy group Common Cause's Save The Selfie, to raise awareness about what they called the attack on the "21st century public square."
From there it gained steam. Comedian John Oliver devoted a segment of his popular HBO show to the topic, encouraging viewers to speak out against Internet service providers charging Web services for priority access. His rant went viral, and the resulting flood of comments crashed the FCC website -- for the first time ever.
As the deadline for public comments approached, thousands of individuals and companies on Twitter shared banners that read "Urgent: If you're not freaking out about Net Neutrality right now, you're not paying attention."
The FCC website crashed again, and the deadline had to be extended because of the "overwhelming surge in traffic," according to the commission.
What effect the inundation of comments will have on the decision making remains to be seen. As of July 25, 1,091,248 comments have been submitted, and it will be a challenge to sift through form letters and abusive comments to get to the substantive ones, the FCC said.
Major telecommunications companies including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have fought back with their own comments, some spanning over 100 pages.
Applying telephone-style regulation to the Internet, which a large number of the public comments are pushing for, would "mire the industry in years of uncertainty and litigation," AT&T said in its statement filed with the FCC.
A group of 13 Democratic senators submitted a letter urging FCC Chairman Wheeler to implement an Internet-as-utility approach.
"If the FCC allows big corporations to negotiate fast lane deals, the Internet will be sold to the highest bidder," Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who signed the letter, said in a statement.
In the meantime, we should not ignore the significance of the fact that the topic of Internet regulation has become a part of the national debate, says Ammori of Stanford Law School.
"Your comment should matter even if you didn't hire a lawyer to write it for you, and so people are using the Internet to save the Internet," he said.