On July 12, many well-known tech companies, websites, and activist groups participated in the “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality”…or just “Net Neutrality Day” for short. This day of protest sought to raise the alarm about net neutrality which is in danger thanks to a bill President Trump signed overturning rules put in place by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Many high-profile tech and media companies including Amazon, Reddit, Patreon, Vimeo, Kickstarter, Mozilla, and Etsy have voiced their support and/or participated in the protest.
Let’s back up a minute though. What is net neutrality and why should you care? Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should allow access to all web content regardless of where it comes from without favoring, blocking, or throttling a application or website. For example, let’s say you pay for a Netflix subscription. Because Netflix streaming requires a lot of bandwidth, your ISP (say Comcast) could charge Netflix for using bandwidth on its network. If Netflix doesn’t pay Comcast, then Comcast may reduce the bandwidth for their customers resulting in slower speeds and poor streaming for Netflix customers. Meanwhile, Comcast could prioritize its own streaming services. Net neutrality would prevent Comcast from prioritizing its own video streaming service and charging Netflix for the same kind of data. Video streams from both Comcast and Netflix would be equal or “neutral” instead of one preferred over the other.
Net neutrality proponents argue that data travelling over the internet should be equal and ISPs cannot prefer one website to another because it discourages competition. Larger companies such as Netflix and Amazon may be able to pay fees to ISPs for priority streaming but a smaller streaming company may not have the resources and so may not be able to compete. Further complicating the issue is that broadband competition is largely absent in many parts of the country. Many neighborhoods and apartment complexes only have access to one internet provider. Therefore, if Comcast throttled or blocked access to Netflix, a customer is unable to switch to another ISP because of the lack of choice (that’s another conversation).
Net neutrality opponents (mainly ISPs and conservatives) argue net neutrality regulations would stifle broadband innovation and make it harder for ISPs to recoup their network infrastructure investments. They argue that because it takes a lot of money to build out networks and keep internet traffic relatively fast, charging companies like Netflix for higher bandwidth will help pay for costs associated with having to accommodate higher fidelity content like 4K streaming and the addition of more internet users in general. Opponents also argue that net neutrality regulations would be harmful for small businesses or startups trying to enter the broadband space. ISPs reject the idea of becoming “dumb pipes” or having a network with little to no control or management of how users use the network. It’s analogous to how city infrastructure like water pipes are used. In fact, back in 2015, the Federal Communications Comission (FCC) ruled in favor of net neutrality and reclassified broadband as a Title II telecommunications service and thus placing new regulations from the Communications Act of 1934 and Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Alright, that was a lot of background, but let’s get back to Net Neutrality Day. Google published a blog post in defense of net neutrality but interestingly did not change the Google homepage or display any banner or Google Doodle about it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg post on his personal page, “Right now, the FCC has rules in place to make sure the internet continues to be an open platform for everyone,” he writes. “At Facebook, we strongly support those rules. We’re also open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality.”
Popular message board/meme site Reddit placed a pop up that loads slowly. The point was to mimic what would happen if ISPs were allowed to throttle or slow down access to Reddit. Like Google, Twitter also published a blog post defending net neutrality. Netflix (which has had up and down support for net neutrality) posted a banner on its homepage saying “Protect Internet Freedom. Defend Net Neutrality.”
Some of the more humorous protests came from Mozilla, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and The Internet Archive. Mozilla (maker of the Firefox browser) released a nine hour YouTube video where the narrators “soothingly” reading pro net neutrality comments. The EFF and Internet Archive both had fake pop up messages that simulated what would happen without net neutrality.
What about the ISPs? Verizon and Comcast both released statements in response. Both companies support an “open internet” but reiterated their opposition to Title II with Comcast stating, “You can have strong and enforceable Open Internet protections without relying on rigid, innovation-killing utility regulation that was developed in the 1930s (Title II). While some seem to want to create hysteria that the Internet as we know it will disappear if their preferred regulatory scheme isn’t in place, that’s just not reality.” AT&T actually said that it was participating in the day of protest despite them being against net neutrality.
AT&T’s SVP of External and Legislative Affairs Bob Quinn wrote, “This may seem like an anomaly to many people who might question why AT&T is joining with those who have differing viewpoints on how to ensure an open and free internet. But that’s exactly the point – 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.”
Whew. That was a lot. So here we are. Both sides of the net neutrality argument have valid arguments and the debate will probably never be settled soon. Based on the statements and actions by FCC Chair Ajit Pai and the Trump Administration, it seems that many net neutrality protections will be rolled back. However, that won’t stop the legions of net neutrality advocates from making their voices heard. More than 2 million comments have been sent to the FCC with millions more emails and phone calls going to members of Congress. Whatever side of the debate you claim, we must continue to respectfully hear arguments and ideas we disagree with in order to come to a compromise that will benefit us all. That will truly make the Internet better.