- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dozens of internet companies are participating in an online protest on Wednesday in support of the Federal Communication Commission’s seemingly doomed net-neutrality rules.
The “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” has gathered numerous websites – including giants like Reddit and Netflix as well as a chorus of smaller groups – to display banner ads, alerts, blog posts, and other calls to oppose FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to remove the rules.
The protest was coordinated by the left-leaning advocacy groups Fight for the Future, Free Press, and Demand Progress, all of which support the current rules.
Pai, a free-market Republican, was appointed chairman after President Donald Trump took office in January, and he has since moved swiftly to throw out the rules. Because Republicans now hold a majority at the agency, Pai likely has the votes necessary to overturn the rules. Pai has not yet detailed how he would replace them.
- Jeff Dunn/Screenshot
The FCC is taking comments on Pai’s proposal, and many of the participants in the online protest are encouraging users to leave comments in support of the existing rules.
Some examples of the actions that have been taken so far:
- Reddit’s home page displays a pixelated, slow-loading logo, with a similarly slow pop-up notice that tells users about the possible dangers of overturning the rules and encourages them to leave comments at the FCC. Kickstarter’s home page displays a full-page notice that tells users about the proposal and leaves links to contact members of Congress. Netflix, Spotify, Twitch, and others have simple banners at the top of their sites linking to a page from their advocacy group, the Internet Association, that again asks users to comment. Twitch has also replaced its chat emotes with icons of a spinning loading wheel. Google and Twitter have blog posts explaining their support for the existing net-neutrality rules and encouraging users to comment – though Google’s is a bit more cautiously worded and calls on users to generally “preserve the open internet.” Twitter is also promoting a “#netneutrality” hashtag.
Vimeo, Pornhub, OKCupid, Airbnb, and Mozilla’s Firefox browser have put out notices as well. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg issued separate posts expressing support for the FCC’s current rules, but said they are also willing to work on a solution with members of Congress. Apple has not said whether it will take part.
The FCC declined to comment.
If Net Neutrality rules are repealed, it could mean a lot more loading spinners.
— Twitch (@Twitch) July 12, 2017
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is a broad principle dictating that all websites and apps on the internet be treated equally. It commands that internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T abide by three core guidelines: no blocking certain websites, no artificially slowing down certain sites, and no soliciting payments from certain sites in exchange for faster speeds and superior quality.
AT&T, for instance, cannot keep a live-TV service like Sling TV at a lower resolution while making its own DirecTV Now service look better. Nor can it require third-party companies to pay for preferential treatment and in turn make it difficult for smaller companies with less funding to compete.
- Jeff Dunn/Screenshot
The current rules give the FCC the authority to generally enforce those principles by classifying ISPs as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. This treats the internet akin to a public utility such as water or electricity. (Several smaller rules for ISPs, in addition to the three core guidelines, are tied to the Title II classification as well.)
The rules were passed along party lines in 2015 by a majority-Democrat agency, after earlier attempts at enforcing net neutrality via Title I of the Communications Act – which gives the FCC less authority over ISP activity – were thrown out in court because of lawsuits from major ISPs.
Republican officials like Pai argue that Title II regulation is heavy-handed and discourages ISPs from investing in their networks. Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and other large ISPs have pledged to maintain a “free and open internet” if the FCC’s current rules are overturned.
But Democrats and most internet companies have met those claims with skepticism. They argue that the fears about investment reduction are overblown and say that Title II is the only authority strong enough to ensure that ISPs – which largely do not face significant competition – are barred from playing favorites.
- Jeff Dunn/Screenshot
Those in favor of overturning the rules – including AT&T, which is nominally participating in Wednesday’s event to express its views on the matter – have called on Congress to create net-neutrality laws of its own. In theory, that would prevent net neutrality’s fate from ping-ponging between political parties at the FCC. But the current turmoil in Washington and the depth of the ideological divide here makes it difficult to see such a bill placating all sides.
It’s worth noting that the net-neutrality laws do not guarantee a completely even playing field. Many major ISPs currently partake in zero-rating and sponsored data programs, which allow users to stream select services at no cost to a data cap. AT&T, for instance, zero-rates its DirecTV Now service on its mobile network, but charges others for the same privilege. The Democrat-led FCC expressed concern with the legality of these practices late last year, but Pai stopped the agency’s investigation into zero-rating shortly after taking the role of chairman.
A bit of déjà vu
The events on Wednesday are not the first time websites have widely protested in favor of net-neutrality rules. Numerous sites participated in an “internet slowdown” day to support stronger ones in 2014, the last time net-neutrality legislation was in limbo.
But the companies making noise then were playing to an FCC that was much more receptive to their requests. Pai, on the other hand, has been adamant that his decision will come down to what he sees as the substance of arguments for or against the rules, not the number of comments in either direction. In other words: Traditional arguments in favor of Title II regulation aren’t likely to change his mind.
Wednesday’s protests, then, seek to put that stance under pressure – if not for now, then for the challenge that any attempt to overturn the net-neutrality rules is likely to face in court.
Either way, expect to continue hearing about net neutrality in the months to come.