A quiet resignation has begun to set in among net neutrality proponents as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai marches forward with his plan.
But Alyssa Milano is having none of it.
The actress and advocate has emerged as one of the loudest and most aggressive voices in support of net neutrality. In this role as champion of net neutrality, Milano’s accomplished something few others have: She’s gotten Pai to engage, despite him mostly ignoring any and all criticism in the past eight months.
Milano has been steadily banging the drum for net neutrality in recent weeks, primarily on Twitter to her 3.3 million followers. And she hasn’t been shy in going after Pai who, as the chairman, has spearheaded the effort to have the FCC repeal the strong net neutrality rules put in place under the Barack Obama administration.
On Wednesday, Pai fired back in a speech, referencing Milano’s role on “Who’s the Boss?” with Tony Danza, as well as other celebrities including Cher and Mark Ruffalo.
And then it was on.
The whole thread is worth reading. But it’s not just the substance of Milano and Pai’s debate that’s important—it’s that the debate is even happening at all.
Major internet providers, telecoms, their advocacy groups, and some Republicans want to eliminate the net neutrality rules. Meanwhile, just about everyone else—major tech companies, most Americans, and the vast majority of academics and industry analysts—want to keep the net neutrality rules. And the two sides—those for and those against net neutrality—are generally at a stalemate.
That’s what makes Milano’s advocacy so important. Her actions are integral in helping to fight net neutrality’s public relations problem —namely that the topic is a boring, wonky subject with a dry name. Net neutrality advocates have been fighting for years but finding it hard to get people to really care much about issues like paid prioritization, interconnection, and just what responsible network management really is. Milano is cutting through that—and making it interesting, too.
After all, who else could get Perez Hilton writing about net neutrality?
Perhaps the biggest change in the net neutrality conversation came from another celebrity—John Oliver. Back in 2014, he did a net neutrality segment on “Last Week Tonight” that immediately changed the narrative around the topic. The clip flew across the internet, and the FCC was flooded with messages. It’s too much to say that Oliver caused the FCC to change its direction, but the public outcry it created had an undeniable impact.
Milano isn’t having quite the same impact, but today’s hurdle is also a far different situation. Net neutrality advocates now face an FCC chair who has not made secret his interest in destroying net neutrality rules. And there’s not much advocates can do to stop him. The FCC is controlled by Pai at this point, and it’s steadily marching toward a Dec. 14 vote.
Aside from getting Congress to act (many advocates have put together efforts to do just that), keeping net neutrality in the news is about all people can do to make sure the topic doesn’t fade into the background. This is all the more challenging considering the current news environment.
And sustained awareness is exactly what Milano is accomplishing by taking on Pai and, importantly, getting him to react. Pai had, up until yesterday, rarely acknowledged net neutrality critics or advocates, choosing instead to go about his business and give the usual industry speeches. Then Milano jumped into the ring.
Milano vs. Pai is just what net neutrality advocates need. Their fight puts faces on a subject that’s mostly theoretical. It pits a strong advocate with a voice against an industry-friendly lawyer with power. It’s the kind of thing that can keep net neutrality in the news even as some proponents are understandably losing steam.
And who doesn’t love some “Who’s the Boss?” references?