The latest phase of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rulemaking is set to come to an end on Monday. Public comment has been strong throughout the open period: net neutrality is the third-highest source of incoming comments (more than 8,000 of them) to the FCC over the last 30 days, behind only the proposed AT&T-DirecTV (10,000) and Comcast-Time Warner (51,000) mega-mergers. Open Internet advocates hope to inspire one last surge of net neutrality discussion this Wednesday, September 10, with the Internet Slowdown protest. The effort received a big boost yesterday when online video streaming giant Netflix signed on.
The symbolic protest against the FCC’s plans to allow ISPs to give a fast lane to privileged content providers willing to pay for access that had already gained support from a broad range of groups and companies. The American Civil Liberties Union, BitTorrent, Boing Boing, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Etsy, Foursquare, Kickstarter, Mozilla, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Pornhub, Reddit, the Sierra Club, Upworthy, Vimeo, WordPress.com, and both the East and West branches of the Writers Guild of America are among those signed on to participate in the protest, organized by Fight For The Future.
Nobody’s site will actually move slower than usual during the Internet Slowdown, so you can still watch your Netflix queue without interruption. Instead, the sites will invoke the specter of life in the Internet slow lane. They’ll show a loading icon to remind visitors of what they say the Internet could look like in a future where net neutrality has been destroyed in the name of greater profits for giant ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner.
Given the importance of symbolism to the Internet Slowdown, Netflix is a prime addition to the net neutrality protest. The biggest streaming site online is the perfect example of the kind of creative disruption that open internet advocates say will no longer be possible if the government allows ISPs to set their own price for allowing content providers entrance into the market. Its recent battles with Comcast over paying for network connections, which affected service to millions of customers, have been prominent in the media. And though Netflix has more subscribers (36 million) than HBO, it’s far less profitable than its cable company-owned competitor, earning $71 million in the second quarter of 2014 to HBO’s $548 million.
Beyond symbolic considerations, those subscriber numbers mean that there will be a lot more eyeballs seeing those loading icons. And if all goes according to plan, there will also be a lot more people wondering what those icons are all about and clicking through to learn how dismantling net neutrality would affect them. Fight For The Future and its partners will be ready to show anyone who wants to speak up how they can let the FCC know what they think about giving cable companies the ability to segregate the internet based on ability to pay.
Netflix, which has led HBO in American subscribers since last year, adds some much-needed commercial heft to the Internet Slowdown. The effort, which had yet to attract a headline company like those that were part of the coalition that helped shoot down SOPA in 2012. There’s still no word yet whether Google, Facebook, or any other big tech company that could spread the message has plans to join the protest on Wednesday.
If those sorts of companies stay on the sidelines, the media will likely fall back on a narrative that this protest isn’t as big as the SOPA blackout, if they report on it at all. There’s an odd standard at work when it comes to protest in the United States these days. When people take to the streets in protest, regardless of the reason and no matter how peacefully, they’re increasingly being met with overwhelming police force. But when they raise their voices in protest online, where there’s no possibility of violence, they’re ignored – unless they’re backed up by large corporate interests.
It used to be that advocates for the open Internet could count on Silicon Valley’s giants to back them up. But as more time goes by, they’re becoming less than reliable partners. Google, which nearly a decade ago described the potential repeal of net neutrality as a serious threat, issued a policy notice last month with a very different tone. “It’s true that Google previously has advocated for certain openness safeguards to be applied in a similar fashion to what would be applied to wireline services… However, in the spirit of compromise, we have agreed to a proposal that allows this market to remain free from regulation for now, while Congress keeps a watchful eye.”
If corporate-owned Congress’ watchful eye becomes all the American people can depend on to keep the big, constantly merging ISPs from setting up internet toll booths, the future has already been won by opponents of the open internet. In that case, we’d all better hope Netflix and its partners in the Internet Slowdown protest can direct enough comments to the FCC to get chairman Tom Wheeler’s attention. His agency still has the power to classify Internet service as a utility and though he has resisted it so far, it was only past public outcry that forced him to keep the option on the table. Perhaps, enough voices raised together before next Monday by the threat of life in the slow lane will convince him to finally pull the trigger.