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Netflix, Reddit, and other sites are "slowing down" to protest net neutrality rules

Justin Sullivan

If you spend much time on the internet, you might have encountered some websites participating in an "internet slowdown," a protest in favor of stronger network neutrality regulations. A number of prominent websites, including Netflix, Reddit, Mozilla, and Upworthy, are participating.

Why are they protesting? And will it do any good? Read on to find out.

What's the internet slowdown?

The internet slowdown is a protest organized by companies and activist groups that support network neutrality. When you visit websites that support the campaign, you see a full-screen ad that looks like this:

Slowdown

Of course, participating sites aren't actually slowing down — you can close the ads at any time. But activists are trying to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to get more aggressive about regulating broadband internet providers in order to protect a free and open internet.

Why are activists protesting the FCC's net neutrality rules?

In May, the FCC proposed a new set of network neutrality regulations to replace rules that had been rejected by the courts earlier in the year. But the new proposal got a bad reaction from network neutrality supporters. They argue that the new regulations don't do enough to prevent large broadband providers from undermining the open internet.

The debate focuses on "fast lanes," business arrangements in which certain internet content gets priority treatment in exchange for a fee. Critics worry that everyone who doesn't pay up will find their websites slowing to a crawl.

The FCC proposal would allow these kinds of arrangements only if they're "commercially reasonable," a legal standard that's expected to be accepted by the courts. But no one is sure what the term means, and the folks behind the internet slowdown campaign believe that it won't be sufficient to stop large internet service providers from causing mischief.

What do they want the FCC to do instead?

The campaign is asking supporters to sign a letter calling for "a rule against blocking, a bright-line rule against application-specific discrimination, and a rule banning access fees." The letter calls for these rules to apply both to residential ISPs like Comcast and Verizon and on wireless networks like Sprint and T-Mobile.

While the letter doesn't specifically mention it, most of the FCC's critics want the agency to adopt a policy known as reclassification, which would put ISPs in the same regulatory category as traditional telephone networks. Companies in this category are subject to robust non-discrimination rules, but the FCC has resisted reclassification out of fear that the rules would be overly onerous. However, the courts have held that the FCC is only allowed to impose strict net neutrality regulations on broadband providers if it first puts them in the legal category designed for that kind of regulation.

Does everyone support stronger network neutrality rules?

NCTA Ad

No, the FCC has faced pressure from the other side of the debate as well. For example, a libertarian think tank called TechFreedom has organized a counterprotest called Don'tBreakTheNet. While that slogan might sound similar to the Internet Slowdown, it's actually making the opposite argument: that more FCC regulation of broadband providers is dangerous to the internet's long-term future.

TechFreedom argues that the low-regulation approach the FCC has taken for the last dozen years has actually worked well. It characterizes the regulations favored by network neutrality proponents as 1930s-style utility regulation, and argues that they would gum up innovation online.

TechFreedom's position is shared by industry lobby groups. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association been spending heavily on ads like the one you see at the right. Confusingly, they look a lot like the ads of pro-network neutrality activists, but if you read them carefully you'll see they're actually in opposition to stronger regulations.

Has this kind of protest worked in the past?

The protest is co-organized by Fight for the Future and Demand Progress, activist groups that played a key role in the 2012 internet blackout to protest the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act. The protest, which attracted the involvement of heavyweights such as Google and Wikipedia, was highly effective. Within hours of the protest, Congressional support for the legislation started to evaporate. It died within days.

But efforts to replicate the protest on other issues has met with more limited success. An internet-wide protest against NSA spying earlier this year fizzled. It's too early to say how much effect today's protest will have on the FCC, but it certainly hasn't attracted the widespread participation of the 2012 effort.

One big difference is that the 2012 protest was focused on a narrow goal: stopping legislation that was widely seen as bad for the internet. In contrast, the NSA and network neutrality protests are trying to persuade policymakers to enact new laws or regulations. That's an inherently more difficult problem, since it's easier to create a sense of urgency around stopping a bad proposal than pushing a good one.

What happens now?

The May FCC vote merely started the regulatory process moving. The agency is currently hearing public comments, and then it will make a final decision about whether to adopt the proposed rules or change them. We don't know exactly how long that will take.

No matter what regulations the FCC adopts, it's likely to lead to further litigation. If the FCC sticks to its guns and adopts the relatively weak rules it proposed in May, then there will be fights about what counts as "commercially reasonable" discrimination. If the FCC bows to activist pressure and reclassifies broadband, opponents are likely to challenge that move in court.

Net neutrality supporters say that if the FCC doesn't beef up its rules, the result will be an internet that's increasingly dominated by big companies, squeezing out smaller voices. Opponents counter that excessive regulation would itself threaten online innovation. Either way, we're going to be debating this issue for a long time to come.

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