Luca, a 12-year-old student at Mt Tabor Middle School in Portland, Oregon, first learned about net neutrality through an Instagram post. “Before it was repealed, I was just trying to tell people about it,” Luca tells Gizmodo.
Soon, she’d gotten her two friends, 12-year-old Athena and 13-year-old Lola, interested in net neutrality – an issue that is of vital importance for the internet but one that is wonky and complex even for many adults.
A month after Luca saw that Instagram post, the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission led by Chairman Ajit Pai voted to overturn the agency’s net neutrality protections, which prevented internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon from blocking or throttling online content and prohibited them from making “paid prioritisation” deals – so-called “fast lanes” for companies willing to pay more to have their content delivered to customers at a higher quality than competitors who don’t pay up.
The three 7th graders knew they had to do something. Immediately, Luca says, the girls planned a school walkout. But Mt. Tabor’s principal, Sean Keating, wasn’t having it, the girls say. Keating tells Gizmodo the walkout would have taken the kids off campus, which could have potentially “placed kids in harm’s way.” After speaking with their parents, he says, they agreed on a school-sanctioned protest that “kept it on campus after school.”
The protest took place after school on February 1st, more than a month after the FCC voted to eliminate net neutrality — you know, so it wouldn’t interfere with the students winter break. Athena says that the students made signs, walked around the block, and that there was a good turnout. Like countless other protests in favour of net neutrality, the Mt. Tabor version was punctuated with signs that read “SAVE THE NET,” “YOU CAN’T BUY OUR FREEDOM,” and “KEEP THE INTERNET ALIVE.”
“Everybody was pretty supportive,” Athena tells Gizmodo. “We don’t have a lot of close friends at school, we’re not super social people, honestly, but a lot of people got really excited about the protest and helped make signs and that kind of thing.”
The protest, however, was just the beginning.
Nearly two weeks later, on February 13th, Luca, Athena, and Lola sat in front of Oregon’s House Committee on Rules and testified in support of net neutrality. They read their testimonies in favour of House Bill 4155, which would make it illegal for public bodies to work with internet service providers that engage in “paid prioritisation, content blocking, or other discrimination.” It is effectively a state-wide bill enforcing the net neutrality rules the FCC struck down. The bill passed in the House and the Senate early this month and is waiting on a signature from Gov. Kate Brown.
“Ajit Pai and the FCC are doing this for their own good,” Luca says. “When they go back to working for the ISPs, they will have nice job with nice pay.”
The FCC declined to comment on the student’s efforts.
All three girls tell me that they were really nervous before giving their testimonies before state lawmakers but ultimately excited to help make a difference. Athena says that they looked into the history of the committee members to see who was paid by internet service providers ahead of their election, noting that many of the people in the room were lobbied by providers like Verizon and Comcast.
“When kids get involved, you know someone really screwed up,” Athena said at the closing of her testimony.
The girls listed a number of reasons why the repeal of net neutrality concerns them, including a lack of internet competition, censorship, a disadvantage for small businesses, and slow and limited access to information online needed for their education. “The repealing of net neutrality is a terrible idea for so many reasons,” Lola says. “It’s awful. It’s not fair for a lot of people,” she adds, noting that a large percentage of Americans oppose the repeal. “It’s also selfish of them because they are being lobbied. They are favouring the ISPs, so it’s just not fair.”
When the girls aren’t advocating for net neutrality, they are learning Japanese together, and they hope to graduate high school a year early so they can travel during their senior year. The three of them also tutor 6th graders once a week, helping them with their maths homework.
Lola describes herself as a perfectionist – “I love things that make sense, are logical, and I can’t stand disorganized plans or rooms,” she says — and is into filming and editing “humorous short films to make my friends laugh.”
Athena, meanwhile, gravitates toward sports like downhill skilling, basketball, and track. And she says her “current obsessions” is the Myers-Briggs personality test. “It’s entertaining to try and guess which one of the 16 types people are,” she says. “The test is incredibly accurate and was what made me want to delve deeper into socionics.”
Luca says she wants to be a fashion designer when she grows up and spends her free time reading and drawing fashion sketches. “I’ve been interested in design and anything related for as long as I can remember. It’s my dream to make my own fashion line,” she says, adding, “My favourite colours are silver and grey and recently I’ve taken up a liking for neon orange.” All three expressed an interest in entrepreneurship, but most of all, they enjoy hanging out with each other.
“I feel really lucky that I have actual friends in middle school,” Athena says.
The girls now hope more states adopt similar measures as Oregon’s, taking a statewide approach to enforcing net neutrality. They also hope the FCC considers re-instituting net neutrality on a national level. While they don’t have any immediate plans with regards to net neutrality, they are still staying up to date on the issues.
“I don’t have anything really planned for net neutrality,” Luca said. “I have been getting really interested in gun control, though.”