Several dozen 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,” as the protest is called, gathered numerous websites — from giants like Reddit and Netflix to a chorus of smaller groups — to display banner ads, alerts, blog posts, and other calls to oppose the proposed removal of the rules by FCC chairman Ajit Pai.
The protest was coordinated by 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 FCC chairman after President Donald Trump took office in January, and has moved swiftly to throw out the rules since. Republicans now hold a majority at the agency, giving Pai the votes necessary to get a repeal passed.
The FCC is presently taking comments on Pai’s repeal proposal. Many of the participants in the online protest are encouraging users to leave comments in support of the existing rules. Pai has not yet detailed how he plans to replace the existing rules.
Some examples of the actions that have been taken as of this writing:
- Reddit’s home page displays a pixelated, slow-loading logo, with a similarly slow pop-up notice that warns users of the possible dangers of the repeal and encourages them to leave comments at the FCC.
- Kickstarter’s home page displays a full-page notice that warns users of the repeal and leaves links to contact members of Congress.
- Netflix, Spotify, Twitch, and others have simple banners at the top of their home pages linking to a page from their advocacy group, the Internet Association, which again asks users to comment.
- Google and Twitter have blog posts explaining their support for the existing net-neutrality rules and encouraging users to comment. Twitter is also promoting a “#netneutrality” hashtag.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is a broad principle that dictates all websites and apps on the internet be treated equally. In this case, it most famously 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. (There are several other rules that are held up by the Title II classification as well.)
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 that third-party companies pay for preferential treatment, and in turn make it difficult for smaller, less well-funded companies to compete.
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.
The rules were passed along party lines in 2015 by a majority-Democrat agency, and came 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 due to 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 repealed.
But Democrats and most internet companies have met those claims with scepticism. They argue that those investment fears are overblown, and warn that Title II is the only authority strong enough to ensure that ISPs are not allowed to play favourites.
Those in favour the repeal — including AT&T and Comcast, both of whom are nominally participating in Wednesday’s event to express their 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 parties at the FCC. But the current turmoil in Washington and the depth of the ideological divide there makes it difficult to see such a bill placating all sides.
A bit of deja vu
The protests on Wednesday are not the first time websites are widely protested in favour of net-neutrality laws. Numerous sites participated in an “internet slowdown” day to support stronger laws the last time they were in limbo in 2014.
But the companies participating were playing to an FCC that was much more receptive to their requests at the time. Pai, on the other hand, has been adamant that his decisions will come down to what he sees as the substance of arguments for or against the rules, not the quantity of comments either way.
Wednesday’s protests, then, are seeking to put that stance under pressure. Either way, expect to continue hearing about net-neutrality in the months to come.
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