News

Internet Companies Plan Online Campaign To Keep Net Neutrality Rules

by Alina Selyukh

The Federal Communications Commission is accepting public comment on its proposal to loosen the “net neutrality” rules placed on Internet providers in 2015.

Andrew Harnik/AP

If the activists’ predictions pan out, Wednesday might see one of the largest digital protests to date.

Dozens of websites and apps have joined ranks with consumer advocacy groups, through a “Day of Action,” to publicly protest the plan by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back regulations it placed on Internet service providers in 2015.

The rules enforce the principle called net neutrality — that Internet service providers shouldn’t slow down or block any sites or apps, or otherwise decide what content gets to users faster. The FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai, is weighing whether (and how) to undo the rules that enforced net neutrality by placing Internet providers under the strictest-ever FCC oversight.

At the time, Pai was a dissenting Republican commissioner on the Democrat-majority FCC. Now, the party control has reversed and President Trump has elevated him to chairman. Pai has presented the net neutrality rules as the government becoming the regulator of the Internet. He has argued that the rules have put a “bureaucratic straitjacket” on the telecom industry, slowing investments in the expansion of broadband access and innovation.

Numerous Web companies, for their part, have argued that net neutrality rules are paramount to ensure that cable and telecom companies don’t become the gatekeepers of how Americans experience the Internet — what people can access at what speeds. The Internet Association, the trade group for Internet companies, says investments have not slowed.

“We haven’t actually lived in a world where fully the ISPs could block access,” says Denelle Dixon, chief legal and business officer at Mozilla. “It’s very hard to imagine a world without (net neutrality). This is the world we need to imagine now.”

Wednesday’s “Day Of Action” is an Internet protest, during which scores of websites and apps are planning to feature banners, pop-ups or other alerts — like the perpetually spinning wheel — all to encourage users to reach out to the FCC or Congress in favor of the existing rules.

Dozens of websites are planning to feature banners like this to protest the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal on net neutrality during Wednesday’s “Day of Action.”

Courtesy of Fight for the Future

Participants are expected to include Netflix, Etsy, Vimeo, Twitter, Reddit and Amazon. Google and Facebook have recently said they plan to participate as well. Organizers include advocacy groups Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Free Press — some of the same activists who organized online campaigns to push the Obama-era FCC toward strict net neutrality regulations and, years earlier, the epic blackout to boycott anti-piracy bills known as SOPA and PIPA.

The FCC is currently accepting public comment on its proposal to loosen the rules for Internet providers, which is titled “Restoring Internet Freedom.” Pai’s review of the rules asks wide-spanning questions, proposing a looser regulatory scheme for Internet service providers as well as seeking comment on whether net neutrality principles should be adopted to begin with.

One key element at stake is the idea of paid prioritization, which would give Internet providers the ability to strike deals with content companies to give some apps and websites — or their own services — special treatment.

This is particularly a sensitive matter to Vimeo, a video service smaller than Google’s YouTube or other companies that offer video like Netflix, Amazon and now Facebook. Vimeo’s general counsel Michael Cheah says paid prioritization would “cable-ize the Internet” and hurt independent and small creators.

“Any time you have a situation where there’s an additional barrier to entry, an additional cost you pay someone or toll you have to get on the road,” he says, “it’s going to favor a type of content that already has a footing in the market.”

Critics of net neutrality rules have argued that some such paid-prioritization deals might, in fact, serve the users best — and that the FCC’s approach shouldn’t be definitive and prescriptive.

Comcast, Verizon and other large providers have said they do support the net neutrality principles of no blocking and no throttling, but oppose the regulatory structure imposed by the 2015 rules. It reclassified the Internet as a more heavily regulated “telecommunications service” rather than an “information service” under the Title II of the Communications Act.

AT&T and telecom trade groups have since lost a court challenge to the Title II approach, but they are expected to seek a Supreme Court review of the matter. Pai wants to undo the Title II reclassification, which the industry argues has burdened them. Net neutrality advocates say without the Title II structure, the FCC can’t really enforce net neutrality.

In 2014, the FCC was flooded with some 4 million comments in response to a proposal to allow paid prioritization. John Oliver’s late-night comedy episode on net neutrality also targeted the FCC. But this time around, Pai and his fellow Republican commissioner at the FCC have called for comments to present a cost-benefit analysis or be otherwise “evidence-based.”

In a May 2017 meeting, as we reported, Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said:

“Thankfully, our rulemaking proceeding is not decided like a Dancing With The Stars contest, since counts of comments submitted have only so much value,” O’Rielly said, adding: “Instead of operating an economics-free zone where the benefits of the rules are assumed to outweigh any cost, commenters will need to provide evidence to support their arguments that the rules are or are not needed.”

Vimeo’s Cheah says this approach is unfair given the broad scope of the proposal itself. “The idea that you don’t have the right to file a comment if you don’t know the ‘magic words’ ” like Title II, he says, “frankly, it’s insulting.”

As the net neutrality policy debate stretches into its second decade, lawmakers in Congress have also spoken about settling it with a new law.

Some of the participants in Wednesday’s “Day of Action” say the protest aims to pressure lawmakers to stand up in support of the current rules, possibly more so than trying to sway the FCC.

Free-market groups and other critics of the current regulations are also looking to Congress as a place to settle the net neutrality debate.

“Enthusiasm for Title II regulations for the internet is misplaced,” wrote a PR firm representing the Internet-provider trade group Broadband for America. “Activists should work together with others who favor net neutrality to get bipartisan legislation through Congress that all sides can agree upon.”

The FCC is collecting public comments until July 17. Then it will collect replies to comments until Aug. 16.

While Corals Die Along The Great Barrier Reef, Humans Struggle To Adjust

by Rob Schmitz

Aerial view of the Heart Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef

Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

Nearly a hundred miles off the shore of Port Douglas, Australia, tourists jump into the water of the outer reef. On their dive, they see giant clams, sea turtles and a rainbow of tropical fish, all swimming above brightly colored coral.

On a boat, marine biologist Lorna Howlett quizzes the tourists in the sunshine. “How many people out there saw a coral highlighter-yellow?” she asks, eliciting a show of hands. “What about highlighter-blue? Yeah? Anyone see some hot pinks?”

Many think of vibrantly colored coral as an example of natural beauty. But in fact, these are early signs that the coral is dying. Healthy coral is usually earth-tone.

Kyle Taylor/Flickr

Eager hands shoot up among the few dozen tourists lounging on the deck of the boat in their wetsuits. Everyone’s still smiling from their Technicolor tour of the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses the world’s biggest coral reef system and is home to some 400 different types of coral.

Then Howlett breaks the news: “Those are not natural coral colors,” she tells them, prompting quizzical looks. “That is actually coral that is stressed, OK. So it’s got a sniffly nose, got a bit of a sore throat.”

It turns out a reef filled with neon coral is not normal. Healthy coral is usually earth-toned. The bright pinks, blues and yellows these tourists saw in their dive along the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef are the first signs that coral is dying.

And then, says marine biologist John Edmondson, “You see it going white.”

Scuba-diving tourists are helped into the water by a boat crew member on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

William West/AFP/Getty Images

That’s the second sign of dying coral, says Edmondson, who runs Wavelength Reef Cruises, a tour operator on the reef.

“That’s when it’s most dramatic looking,” he says, pointing to a bleached brain coralthat is hundreds of years old. “But you don’t know if it’s going to die or it’s going to recover. … And when you start to see the coral actually dying, getting covered with algae and looking horrible, that is when it really hits home.”

In the past 18 months, Edmondson has watched as two-thirds of the coral along this 400-mile northern stretch of the Great Barrier Reef has turned white and died. Rising ocean temperatures have caused the single greatest loss of coral ever recorded along the reef.

John Edmondson runs Wavelength Reef Cruises in Port Douglas, Australia. Trained as a marine biologist, Edmondson makes a point of explaining the science behind climate change and coral bleaching to his customers.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

The die-off is devastating for the thousands of species that depend on the reef, including those responsible for its decline — humans, who depend on it for $6 billion in tourism revenue annually.

Those who work on the reef never thought things would get so bad so fast.

“I did not expect to see a loss of corals to this extent in my lifetime. This has come sooner than we had hoped,” says Terry Hughes, director of the Coral Reef Center at James Cook University in Townsville, along the midsection of the reef.

The world’s oceans have absorbed some of the heat from the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and in many cases, their waters are now warmer than at any time in recorded history. Corals are sensitive to temperature swings. Much like a human body, a rise of a few degrees can lead to illness, and eventually, death. The average ocean temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit. UNESCO expressed “serious concern” about the reef’s health last week — though it left the reef off its endangered list.

Top, bleached coral along the Great Barrier Reef. More than two-thirds of all the coral along the northernmost 400 miles of the reef bleached and died in the past 18 months. A sea turtle rests along the Great Barrier Reef, lower left, and a giant clam is seen along the outer reef, lower right.

Chelsea Malayny/NPR

“The new normal”

For the past two years, Hughes has led a team of scientists in both aerial and underwater surveys of the reef. It took a while — the Great Barrier Reef is made up of more than 3,000 individual reefs stretching as long as the entire West Coast of the United States. Their findings, published in March in the journal Nature, estimate that a third of the coral died along the entire Great Barrier Reef between March and November 2016, due to warmer-than-average water temperatures.

“Close to half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have died in a period of about 18 months,” Hughes says. “This is the new normal.”

Hughes is calling on everyone who studies and protects the world’s coral reefs to adjust to this new normal. He says coral reef management has always focused on restoring reefs to their pristine condition — before the oceans began to warm.

“And we argue that’s no longer possible,” says Hughes. “What we should be aiming for is keeping the reefs functional, recognizing that the world is on a conveyor belt. We are going to a new type of coral reef ecosystem, but if we’re careful how we do that, we will have a functioning ecosystem that will provide benefits to people.”

He doesn’t have any specific answers as to how to make that happen, but he’s calling on reef managers around the world to come up with plans.

Jon Brodie is a research fellow at James Cook University’s Coral Reef Center. He used to direct water quality for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Brodie believes it’s too late to save the coral along the reef.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

Not everyone at the Coral Reef Center shares Hughes’ optimism. Research fellow Jon Brodie used to direct water quality for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. He believes it’s too late to save the coral. Water temperatures are rising too fast, he says, and he predicts that in 30 years, most of it will be gone.

The 70-year-old has given his life to the reef. For him, the new normal is hard to accept.

“I have lots of young or youngish Ph.D. students and the like, and it wasn’t too many years ago when I could inspire them that this was a great area to work in and make a difference,” he says. “I find that more difficult now; much more difficult now.”

In many areas, oceans are warmer than at any time in recorded history. Coral is sensitive to temperature swings. Like a human body, a rise of a few degrees can lead to illness, and eventually, death.

Chelsea Malayny/NPR

A multibillion-dollar business

But along the waterfront in Cairns, where kids splash in a pool and diving boats sound their horns, his concerns seem far away. The city is the main hub of tourism along the Great Barrier Reef, a $6 billion industry employing 60,000 people. Many tour operators here take issue with the surveys scientists like Hughes have conducted of the reef’s health.

Col McKenzie directs the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators in Cairns. He says he’s bracing for a financial hit.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

“When they try to paint holistic pictures from sampling, you don’t get the real story,” says Col McKenzie, who directs the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators in Cairns.

McKenzie questions how accurate these scientific surveys have been, and he thinks the media has influenced people to think the reef has become the Great Barrier Graveyard.

“If we’re taking tourists out of Cairns to reefs that are destroyed, our business wouldn’t survive for more than a month,” says McKenzie, laughing. “We just wouldn’t be able to keep doing it. Yet you go and talk to people coming off these boats, they’ve had a fantastic time. They’ve seen what they came here to see!”

McKenzie maintains that there’s still a lot of healthy habitat to see, and there will be for years to come. But he does worry about the amount of coral that has died and what it’s going to do to the region’s bottom line.

“My guess is we’ve seen the end of double-digit growth,” he says, furrowing his brow. “We’re probably going to go back to 2 to 3 percent growth instead of 20 to 30 [percent]. The big issue is we got a lot of money being spent on additional infrastructure here in Cairns: new pontoons, new boats, new hotels going up.”

And that’s why McKenzie thinks rash measures should be taken to save the reef. He proposes installing enormous turbines in the deep ocean surrounding the reef. “If you could imagine a massive big ceiling fan, like a turbine pushing cool water to the surface,” he says.

A bleached coral like this one – hundreds of years old – is becoming a more common sight along the Great Barrier Reef, where scientists say an average of a third of all coral died last year alone.

Chelsea Malayny/NPR

In an email, Terry Hughes called McKenzie’s proposal one of the most “hare-brained” ideas he’s ever heard. He says tackling climate change would be easier.

Caught between the scientists and tour operators are the tourists themselves. Seventy percent of them come from outside Australia, like Alan Crabtree from Bellingham, Wash.

“One of the reasons we came now is because we wanted to see the barrier reef before it disappeared,” says Crabtree. “We wanted to take advantage of that.”

At the end of a day of snorkeling, the tourist boat pulls into Port Douglas, where thousands of colorful lorikeets fly between palm trees as the sun sets behind them. Wavelength Reef Cruises’ owner John Edmondson sits on his boat, talking about how the tourism industry is having a hard time dealing with the reef’s loss of coral.

Some operators don’t mention it to tourists for fear of spoiling a fun day out, but he’s chosen to educate his customers about what’s going on and what they can do to prevent climate change.

“If you’ve got a fantastic product, but there’s a negative aspect of it, how do you deal with that negative aspect?” Edmondson asks. “It’s best, I think, to explain it because most people are understanding.”

After all, says Edmondson, this isn’t Disneyland. It’s the world. Our world.