In Protests of Net Neutrality Repeal, Teenage Voices Stood Out

WASHINGTON — When Anooha Dasari, 16, heard the federal government was about to kill rules that guaranteed an open internet, she contacted her United States representatives for the first time, asking them to stop the action.

The Mundelein, Ill., high school junior then passed around a link to classmates for a website that automatically placed calls, web comments and emails to the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that was moving to repeal the so-called net neutrality rules. When the F.C.C. voted last week on the rollback, Ms. Dasari stayed glued to her smartphone for updates while taking her American government class.

“For research, for news, to communicate with friends, the internet is a big part of my life,” Ms. Dasari said. “It has formulated my personality, opinions and political ideology. If it is controlled, my generation of students could be inclined to be just on one part of the spectrum. That’s dangerous.”

Millions of Americans have been caught up in a bitter debate over the repeal of net neutrality rules that prevented broadband providers from blocking websites or demanding fees to reach consumers. But the most vocal and committed activity may have come from generation internet, the digitally savvy teenagers in middle and high school who grew up with an open internet.

The repeal of net neutrality has gotten many of these teens politically engaged for the first time, with fears that the dismantling of rules could open the door for broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast to distort the experience of accessing anything online with equal ease. For them, a dry issue that has often been hard to understand outside of policy circles in Washington has become a cause to rally around.

“For students that have used an internet that is open and without tolls their whole life, as complicated as net neutrality is, kids can get their heads around it pretty easily,” said John Lewis, the head of Gunston School, a private high school in Centreville, Md.

Net neutrality’s repeal will not take effect for several weeks. Internet service providers including AT&T and Comcast have promised they won’t block or throttle sites or create fast lanes for certain content. And several efforts are underway to scale back the rollback, including the introduction of a Congressional bill and potential lawsuits.

The opposition by many teenagers is rooted in how they are among the most avid users of the internet and smartphones. Virtually all youth between ages 13 and 17 own or have access to a smartphone and 94 percent use social media, according to an April 2017 study by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Many are gaining access to devices at younger ages, with 98 percent of children from newborn to 8 years old accessing a mobile device at home, compared with 52 percent in 2011.

Many became digital users when net neutrality was in effect. Net neutrality has existed in various forms since about 2006, when the F.C.C. first created open internet guidelines for broadband providers known as the “Four Internet Freedoms.” In 2015, the F.C.C. declared that broadband had become utility-like and deserved extra government oversight. Since 2006, more and more children began using Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and all manner of other apps and online services.

In the days before the F.C.C. voted on net neutrality repeal last week, children and teenagers organized protests in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Keene, N.H. They wrote letters and sent tweets to F.C.C. commissioners and volunteered for texting and phone campaigns to push members of Congress to use their authority to overturn or dilute the F.C.C. decision.

Alli Webb, 18, a senior at Gunston, missed school last week ahead of the F.C.C. vote with permission from Mr. Lewis and her parents. With three other students, she drove two hours to downtown Washington to stand in front of a Verizon store during lunch hour. There, she hollered slogans to save net neutrality rules with signs that read “Stop F.C.C.!” and “Equal Opportunity: Still Loading.”

“This is really bad for technology, innovation and our future,” said Ms. Webb, who wants to study computer science in college. “This is going to totally change the internet.” She said she feared start-ups would have to submit to the demands of internet service providers to showcase their sites, which could hold back entrepreneurs.

At Southside High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., net neutrality dominated conversation in the lunchroom last week and throughout the day of the vote, last Thursday as students checked for updates.

“I’ve met lots of friends on Instagram and I communicate with my mom and with all my friends at least 10 times a day on social media,” said Matthew Baxley, 15, a 10th grader who recently participated in a texting effort to protest the repeal. “The internet is at the center of a lot of what I do and care about.”

Some teachers had to make adjustments. Laurie Crowe, a high school history teacher in Kyle, Tex., tried to give an exam to 11th graders at Lehman High School last Thursday but couldn’t get her students off their phones and laptops. She was surprised to find them streaming the F.C.C. vote. Eventually, she postponed the exam so they could watch the five commissioners cast their votes and explain their positions.

When the F.C.C. chairman, Ajit Pai, cast the final vote to dismantle the rules, students slammed their laptops shut and tore off their earphones in disappointment, Ms. Crowe said.

“These kids felt very indignant and betrayed by this decision because they feel entitled to information and the internet,” she said.

Ms. Dasari remains determined to fight. She said she would continue to push lawmakers to salvage open internet rules through legislation and she is following the news for lawsuits challenging the repeal.

“I will tweet and email and call and stay in the process,” she said. “We have time and we won’t go away.”