Depending on what websites you visit today, the internet may seem a little crunchy. Don’t worry, your favorite websites are not loading any slower, but they could be if federal regulators fail to enact strong net neutrality rules, according to advocacy groups and websites participating in an online protest.
Dozens of businesses and advocacy groups are displaying “loading” icons on their websites today as part of a coordinated effort to pressure the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt net neutrality rules with teeth. The icons do not actually slow down the websites, but without government regulation, the advocates argue, big cable and broadband companies could slow down websites that can’t pay new fees.
Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon should treat all web content equally and refrain from blocking and censorship. The FCC is hosting its second round of comments on a hotly contested set of proposed net neutrality rules, and advocates say the future of the web hangs in the balance.
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The coalition behind the protest, which includes web businesses such as Etsy and Foursquare alongside progressive activist groups, is calling on the FCC to reclassify the internet under Title II of the Communications Act. Reclassification would allow the government to regulate the internet like a public utility and require internet service providers to treat all web content equally.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed to regulate the internet under a different section of federal communications law, and while his proposal would prevent internet providers from blocking and censoring web content, it would allow broadband companies to charge content providers like Netflix fees to reach consumers faster, as long as those deals are “commercially reasonable.” Netflix is participating in the protest.
Advocates argue such deals would create a “two-tiered internet,” with fast lanes for wealthy content providers and slow lanes for everyone else, putting small businesses, minority groups and startups at a disadvantage. After significant public outcry, the FCC said it would consider Title II reclassification in its proposal.
The libertarian think tank TechFreedom recently launched its own online campaign against Title II reclassification. The group has worked with progressive advocates on issues like online piracy and cell phone unlocking in the past, and its “Don’t Break The Net” website looks a lot like the campaign sites built by hardcore net neutrality advocates.
TechFreedom claims that allowing the FCC to regulate the internet like a public utility would lead to costly regulations that would stifle innovation and private investment in broadband infrastructure. Title II reclassification would not ban “fast lanes,” the group argues, but the resulting regulations would be a burden on the same small businesses and web startups that progressives are trying to protect.
More than 1 million comments on the proposal have been submitted to the FCC, and about 99 percent are in support of net neutrality, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation. About 60 percent of the comments are form letters written by many of the same advocacy groups involved in the slowdown protest.
“Millions already have spoken out against the FCC’s slow-lane scheme, but FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler seems to think if he hides out in Washington the public will lose interest,” said Free Press CEO Craig Aaron. “But the public outcry is only growing louder – and the internet slowdown will show millions more people what a world without real net neutrality would look like.”
Free Press and its allies have pulled off massive online protests before – their “internet blackout” protest in 2012 helped defeat two controversial anti-piracy bills in Congress.