Millennials are known for being glued to their screens, but in Keene Thursday, they were out protesting for the right to use those screens as they see fit.
A group of at least 30 high school students, primarily from Keene High School and Making Community Connections (MC²) Charter High School, gathered outside the Verizon store in the Riverside Plaza on Winchester Street to protest a potential rollback of net neutrality rules.
Next week, the Federal Communications Commission is set to vote on rescinding rules requiring Internet service providers to give consumers equal access to all legal content online. Without these rules, providers could be free to block Internet content, impose fees on companies like Netflix or Google for faster speeds, or even charge consumers to connect to certain sites, according to those against rolling back the regulations.
Those in favor of cutting the regulations say net neutrality over-regulates the Internet and forces providers to invest resources in meeting net neutrality requirements rather than improving services and infrastructure for customers.
Thursday afternoon’s event was organized primarily by Conor Hill and Oni Saleh, a junior and senior at Keene High, respectively, and Harrison Hicks, a senior at MC².
“This is really important because this is the mobilization of a generation that people characterize as not involved, they don’t care. But (we) know that this is going to impact everything that happens in our daily lives,” Hill said.
The protest was made possible, largely, by the Internet itself, the organizers said. The students coordinated the event through Team Internet, an online community advocating for net neutrality, which was created by the nonprofit organization Fight for the Future.
Team Internet facilitated the planning of hundreds of protests across the nation Thursday, according to its website, including in Concord, Lebanon, Manchester and Nashua. Many of the demonstrations were outside Verizon stores in part because FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has pushed to end net neutrality, previously worked as associate general counsel for Verizon, the website says.
The students also spread the word about their event through the Internet using social media platforms, such as Snapchat and Facebook.
The high-schoolers held signs with painted slogans like “Stop the FCC!” and “Hey Siri, how much does this sentence cost?”
In addition, some signs were decorated with popular Internet memes. Hicks’ sign featured a variation of the famous “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, but with an ethernet cable replacing the traditional snake.
Saleh said the topic of net neutrality is especially important in rural areas like the Monadnock Region, where some households might not even have access to high-speed Internet yet.
“Because a lot of people don’t have access, this is making it even harder. You’re going back — this is not just one step, but many steps for people who maybe were close to getting Internet, but now it will be incredibly difficult for them to get there,” he said.
It’s also an especially relevant topic for younger generations, the organizers agreed.
“The Internet is imperative to my education, and it’s really hard to be a self-starter and to teach yourself the information you need without the Internet,” said Hicks, “especially since we’re the first generation who’s grown up with the Internet having been around our entire lives.”
Mary de Gozzaldi, one of the few protestors who was not a high school student, said she was glad to see young people standing up for what they believe in.
“This is just awesome,” she said. “Very inspiring.”
The group stayed outside the store for about 45 minutes, filling the parking lot with chants of “Free the Web!” and impassioned speeches delivered by bullhorn.
Apart from asking the protestors to leave a clear pathway to the store’s entrance, workers at the Verizon store did not interact with the students Thursday.
“Like those expressing their views today, Verizon fully supports an open Internet and believe consumers should be able to use it to access lawful content when, where, and how they want,” a corporate spokesman from Verizon said in an email to The Sentinel. “We’ve publicly committed to that before, and we stand by that commitment today.”
Hill emphasized the importance of getting involved in the fight to preserve net neutrality.
“Call your reps, make sure that the word gets out in workplaces and with your family and friends, and just know that this impacts every American. Every American,” Hill said. “Even people that do not have access to the Internet — this is an attack on them as well.”