The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protestors descend on the White House over the future of the Internet

Protestors organized a "light brigade" outside the White House on Thursday night to promote net neutrality. (Photo by Nancy Scola/The Washington Post)

"What I remember about life before the Internet," said Marvin Ammori as he stood near the White House on Thursday night, "was that it really sucked."

Ammori, a 37-year-old lawyer and activist from the District, was one of nearly 100 protesters at Lafayette Park who were rallying against what the Federal Communications Commission (located a mile and a half southeast) might do to could change the way people interact with the Internet. The rally was one of several organized by the umbrella group Battle for the Net in three dozen cities across the United States.

The latest protests were triggered by a report suggesting that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler just might be settling on a plan that would give regulators more power over the way the Internet flows between content providers like Netflix and Internet service providers like Comcast by reclassifying those portions under what's known as Title II of telecommunications law. Instead of treating the Internet as a single ecosystem, a so-called hybrid approach could divide regulation between retail consumers and wholesale customers.

How serious the FCC is about that approach and how it might work remains unclear, but so far, it hasn't made many people happy.

Cable companies and Internet service providers don't much like the idea. Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, an advocacy group opposed to far-reaching regulation, said in a statement this week: "King Solomon wasn't serious when he proposed splitting the baby. Let's hope Chairman Wheeler isn't either." And blogged Verizon general counsel Randal Milch this week: "Like a full move to Title II, the hybrid approach also fairly guarantees litigation."

Then there was the crowd gathered in Lafayette Park on Thursday just after dusk.

"Hey, hey, ho, ho, Tom Wheeler has got to go!," chanted the varied congregation that included college students, environmental activists in town to protest new gas pipelines, an Apple Genius Bar employee, veterans of Occupy Wall Street and at least one federal worker. "Don't. Let. The. Internet. Die. Time. To. Reclassify."

An unidentified speaker cited the Michael Lewis book "Flash Boys" on the financial industry's efforts to gain advantage by building their own computer networks. "You know how much they spent on a hard lines from New Jersey to Chicago?  Like 300 million dollars. What do you think that means? That speed means something."

The crowd ticked through its worries about an Internet tilted in favor of Internet service providers: that it will strangle the news sources on which they rely, discourage innovation and turn the World Wide Web toward into an ad-soaked wasteland. "The free exchange of information and ideas is as crucial to a free society: Stop the Thought Police," read one sign, hand-printed on an shipping box.

Thursday night's protests included ones outside Comcast's Philadelphia headquarters and in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza.

"It's important that this issue is dealt with because there are just too many people who are affected," said Linda Slape, an Apple Genius Bar employee from Northern Virginia who, like the federal IT worker standing next to her, had learned about the protest on reddit. She added with a soft chuckle of self-consciousness, "It's about freedom itself."

Acting as emcee for the night's events was Evan Greer, an organizer with the online advocacy group Fight for the Future. "These are the devices that we use to connect to free speech," Greer said, pointing to the phones and laptops being held aloft, many open to "It is your power to connect. It is power to speak out. With that tiny device in your hand, you can reach millions of people, and it doesn't cost a cent -- other than what you pay monthly."

Said Ammori, the D.C. lawyer, noting his insular childhood in Michigan: "Life before the Internet was just ads and shopping malls and bad TV. To me, it's just really personal: I just love the Internet."

That just might be the one thing everyone engaged in this debate can agree on.