Ahead of a deadline for public comments on the demise of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, tech companies far and wide today are jointly ringing the alarm.
If you visit sites like Reddit, Vimeo, Netflix, Airbnb, and Pornhub, you might notice banners or overlays calling on people to "save net neutrality." This comes after the now-Republican-led commission voted in May to gut rules put in place by the previous administration.
The move is now open for two rounds of public comments, the first of which closes in four days (leave your comment here). There will then be another round of "reply comments," where you can address the things brought up in the first round. A final vote, which will formally axe these rules, is expected later this year.
With the Republicans now in control of the FCC, and an FCC chairman—Ajit Pai—who has publicly slammed net neutrality regulation for years, it's likely that these rules will indeed be revoked. But top internet companies are not going down without a fight, which is what today’s online protest is all about.
"The FCC wants to destroy net neutrality and give big cable companies control over what we see and do online," reads a note on battleforthenet.com, the site organizing the protest. "If they get their way, they'll allow widespread throttling, blocking, censorship, and extra fees. On July 12th, the Internet will come together to stop them."
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the concept that everyone should have equal access to the web. Amazon should not be able to pay to have its website load faster than Newegg or Best Buy, or a mom-and-pop e-commerce site, for example.
What's the Problem?
At this point, most people who are engaged on this issue—big ISPs and internet firms, Republicans and Democrats—will tell you that they believe in the concept of net neutrality. AT&T is even joining today's day of action; "We all agree that an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world," Bob Quinn, SVP of external and legislative affairs for AT&T, wrote in a Tuesday blog post.
Those ISPs, however, believe they can handle this on their own. Uncle Sam doesn't need to intervene with regulations, thank you very much. If ISPs are too heavily regulated, they argue, they won't be able to invest in new technologies and web users will suffer.
Net neutrality supporters argue that without enforceable rules of the road, there will be no one to hold ISPs accountable should they do something shady. After all, this whole debate started almost a decade ago when Comcast was accused of blocking P2P sites. Back then, the FCC crafted rules that would ban ISPs from discriminating based on content. It was okay to slow down your entire network during peak times, for example, but you couldn't block a particular site, like BitTorrent.
A Decade Ago? We're Still Fighting?
The Republican-led FCC handed down an enforcement action against Comcast in 2008; the Democratic-led commission then proposed formal net neutrality rules a year later. ISPs responded with lawsuits, arguing that the FCC did not have the legal authority to hand down rules regulating them.
The ISPs won—twice—forcing the FCC to go back to the drawing board. That's when the commission came up with the Title II approach. It's wonky, but the move reclassified broadband as a telecom service rather than an information service (it's known as "Title II" in D.C. speak for its placement in the Communications Act). But that gave the FCC more legal standing to regulate broadband providers—and to withstand further legal challenges.
That approach worked, but FCC rules are not law, so when Trump won last year, he appointed Ajit Pai as his FCC chairman, and Pai promptly moved to dismantle the Title II net neutrality rules.
What Is Happening Now?
We’re in the midst of the public comment period, so companies participating in today's Battle for Net Neutrality are hoping to drum up support for keeping the rules in place. They’d like you to flood the FCC's comment system with your thoughts on why the FCC should keep the rules in place.
With the GOP in charge of the commission and Congress, public outcry is pretty much the only way to stop this from happening. Just ask John Oliver, whose plea to vote in favor of these rules in 2014, crashed the FCC's website. That, however, was when the Democrats were in charge of the FCC. Oliver is trying again, but Pai and his fellow GOP commissioner are unlikely to be swayed by public comments.
That doesn't mean similar activism hasn't worked before; in 2012, Congress abandoned plans for the controversial PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) after a Web blackout during which several high-profile sites, from Reddit to Wikipedia, went dark in protest of PIPA and SOPA, while other companies, like Google, added signage on their homepages in opposition to the bills. But again, at the time, the Democrats were in charge of the Senate and the White House.
What Are People Saying?
A few dozen sites are participating in today's protest; you can see a list here. Read on for what some of the major players are saying about why they believe the FCC’s internet rules should be preserved.
In a note on Reddit, co-founder Alexis Ohanian argues that net neutrality rules provide a level playing field. "Net neutrality gives new ideas, online businesses, and up-and-coming sites—like Reddit was twelve years ago—the opportunity to find an audience and grow on a level playing field. Saving net neutrality is crucial for the future of entrepreneurship in the digital age," he writes.
"I invite everyone who cares about this across the internet to come talk about it with us on Reddit. Join the conversation, upvote stories about net neutrality’s importance to keep them top of mind, make a high-quality GIF or two, and, most importantly, contact the FCC to let them know why you care about protecting the open internet."
"Vimeo is the home to so many creators and an unlimited supply of creativity. Vimeo creators don’t have to seek permission to make and innovate — they just do it. And they continue to flourish because they don’t have to worry about ISP interference," the company wrote in a blog post.
Vimeo encourages users to make a video and images to use and share, featuring thoughts from our own community about why net neutrality is so important – in addition to filing public comments. "Start sharing and include your friends and family in the fight."
Netflix has added a banner at the top of its site: "Protect Internet Freedom. Defend Net Neutrality. Take Action." Clicking "Take Action" takes you to the Internet Association's primer on net neutrality, with GIFs and links galore.
"Defend Net Neutrality," Kickstarter says plainly in an overlay on its homepage. "Protect creativity, innovation, and free speech in the digital age. Keep the internet open for everyone," the site says. Click "take action" to enter your information, "and you’ll be connected directly with your representative in Congress and provided with a short script to guide the conversation."
This one might be for after hours (note to my IT department: there's a reason why I have Pornhub in my browser history, promise!). But if you want a side of policy with your porn, Pornhub has also added a banner atop its website, which links to battleforthenet.com.
In a cheeky move, AT&T is also "joining" today's day of protest. In a blog post, AT&T writes that it supports the concept of net neutrality, but says regulation is not the answer.