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Today’s net neutrality protest is a last stand in a fight that could change the internet

Net neutrality is about to disappear. The Battle for the Net is an internet-wide attempt to save it.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Speaks At American Enterprise Institute Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

After weeks of buildup, and facing higher stakes than ever before, websites around the internet are protesting today on behalf of net neutrality — the Battle for the Net, also known as the “Day of Action.”

The protest has mounted among some of the web’s biggest corporations and communities in the face of the FCC’s current attempts to dismantle net neutrality regulations. At issue is the basic question of whether internet service providers (ISPs) should be treated like public utilities, and therefore forced to distribute service to everyone equally, or allowed to behave like free-market competitors — potentially hijacking your internet speeds and access. (Read our in-depth explainer on net neutrality here.)

But while such protests have made an impact in the past, doubts are rising that this year’s protest will have any effect on a conservative FCC chair who seems determined to undo what he sees as a largely partisan ruling enacted during the Obama administration.

Since 2015, there have been laws in place that restrict ISPs like Verizon and Comcast from deliberately slowing internet speeds, blocking access to certain services and sites, and requiring customers to pay more for fully unrestricted speeds and access. But now, with the FCC actively working to repeal those laws, net neutrality advocates fear they could lose all those protections.

The FCC’s proposed plan to repeal current net neutrality legislation, titled “Restoring Internet Freedom,” was announced in May, and is open for public comment until July 17. The current setbacks facing net neutrality are dramatic, and would essentially allow ISPs to have unregulated control over how you access the internet — as well as unregulated access to your personal data and web usage information.

Because the potential changes are so drastic, they have sparked a dramatic reaction from many of the web’s major players, including Amazon, Reddit, and Netflix, along with numerous other influential websites from PornHub to Kickstarter. Today’s Day of Action is intended to be a collective wake-up call, a protest that alerts the public to the serious changes facing the internet at large.

What to expect from the Day of Action protest

Advocates for net neutrality have been urging internet users to speak out on the matter for weeks; thanks to efforts like John Oliver’s May viral video asking his viewers to comment on the FCC’s, which temporarily crashed the FCC website, more than 5 million comments on the plans have already been received. (In that same vein, some senators urged the FCC to prepare for today’s protest by shoring up its servers in anticipation of a surge in traffic from angry consumers.)

But the official “action” will come today, when many websites go dark, put up banners, send out pop alerts or calls to action, or purposefully interfere with the speed of their own pages in order to draw visitors’ attention to the issue.


The last virtual day of protest like this one took place in September 2014, in anticipation of the 2015 ruling, when websites across the internet delivered a day of “Internet Slowdown.” During that protest, many websites greeted visitors with symbolic “loading” symbols and deliberately delayed their load times in order to materially remind users that what’s at stake in the conversation surrounding net neutrality is your internet speed and access to information.

Look for websites displaying banner ads linking to net neutrality activist sites like Battle for the Net, pop-up notifications and in-app alerts from mobile apps, websites redirecting you to comment pages and write-in letters, blogs going dark in protest, and social media discussing #NetNeutrality and #BattlefortheInternet.

Some websites have made site-specific enhancements; for example, Wordpress has an installable plugin for the day of protest so people who host their websites on Wordpress can easily tell visitors what’s up, while Vimeo created a special “bumper video” on the topic to encourage Vimeo creators to add it to their videos.

Google, Facebook, and Amazon initially committed to joining the protest as well, but in actuality, their contributions have been barely visible. While Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg posted a note of support on his personal blog, the site itself has not changed. And Google and Twitter posted pro-net neutrality blog entries, but neither has visibly altered or interrupted their website services (though Twitter is promoting the #NetNeutrality hashtag). Tumblr encouraged its users to support Net Neutrality and hosted a panel discussion on the issue on its Action Time blog.

While this isn’t the first fight the internet’s most visible communities have waged on behalf of net neutrality, it is the first such prominent fight to be waged during the Trump administration. Various recent polls on the subject indicate bipartisan support for the concept of net neutrality, but also, paradoxically, a dislike of government regulation of telecommunication industries, which indicates confusion about what’s at stake regarding the FCC’s proposed changes.

At the center of the protest is the issue of ISP accountability

You may recall the hard-won 2015 FCC ruling that enacted net neutrality legislation by forcing ISPs to comply with federal telecommunications regulations. The ruling followed years of intense campaigning from internet activists, as well as a notable 2014 day of protest from prominent internet voices, and was hailed as a victory for a free and open internet.

That’s why you’d be forgiven for believing the battle for net neutrality has already been fought and won. Essentially, it was — but under the Trump administration, it’s being fought again.

The FCC’s new chair, Ajit Pai — who was appointed by President Trump in January — takes a staunchly anti-regulatory approach to the laws that govern how ISPs conduct business. He has said repeatedly that the 2015 ruling passed “on a party-line vote,” and believes that the FCC’s previous 2015 ruling is essentially frivolous and unnecessary. So he’s seeking to undo it by deregulating ISPs.

Currently, because the FCC classifies ISPs as telecommunications companies, they’re forced to abide by the same basic regulations that, for example, keep phone companies from deliberately providing you with a bad connection unless you pay to upgrade to a better one.

But the FCC’s current proposal would reclassify ISPs as information companies instead of telecommunications companies. This would essentially abolish the regulations in place to protect internet users’ equal, unfiltered access to bandwidth and data — the building blocks of a “neutral” internet — in favor of an unregulated free market with little to no accountability from the ISPs due to a lack of government oversight regarding how ISPs distribute their services to internet users.

In fact, if Pai has his way, ISPs would not be subject to FCC restrictions at all but would instead fall under the purview of the Federal Trade Commission — which is a huge problem for websites, internet privacy advocates, and advocates for a free, open internet.

There’s a tremendous amount at stake in the debate over net neutrality, beyond just how fast webpages load

The FCC’s potential repeal of the 2015 net neutrality ruling would ask ISPs to “voluntarily agree” not to slow down internet speeds or restrict users’ access to data. But the efficacy of such a request would be questionable at best. That’s because, prior to the 2015 ruling, major ISPs in the US had already been accused of throttling speeds and degrading service to their customers. (And even after the 2015 regulations took hold, they only did so much.) ISPs like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T have tried over the years to throttle bandwidth under various guises, restrict access to competitive services, and even block political messages on their servers.

And there’s a huge problem with Pai’s plan to make ISP regulation the FTC’s responsibility, which is simply that the FTC is an enforcement agency, not a regulatory one. That is, the FTC has no ability to create or enforce new regulations against potential abuses of net neutrality, because while the Federal Communications Commission can enact regulations for how ISPs must behave, the Federal Trade Commission is really only legally able to enforce existing rules against ISPs after the FCC has established them. So since the FCC would be throwing its own regulations out the window, the only regulatory action the FTC would be able to take would be to issue punishments after the fact if an ISP failed to actually adhere to any promise to obey net neutrality that it had voluntarily written into its own terms of service.

Given the sheer number of ISPs that exist across the country, and the enormous difficulty of policing them all to determine whether they are actually obeying their own voluntary agreements — to say nothing of taking action against them after they’ve already implemented any harmful business practices — it’s highly unlikely that the FTC would be enforce any meaningful regulation against ISPs.

And given that these ISPs are now, thanks to Congress’s recent controversial dismantling of internet privacy laws, also able to sell your browser histories and internet search histories without your consent, it’s worrisome, to say the least, that they could potentially fall under the control of a federal agency with no power to regulate them.

All of these factors have internet freedom advocates worried, and have already heightened focus on today’s protest. And perhaps even more worrisome, at least to anyone who supports net neutrality, is that the protest has also drawn plenty of cynicism that any amount of public comment or protest will sway the FCC from doing whatever it wants.

One Republican lobbyist has already told Politico the protest isn’t likely to gain any “political traction.” And on social media, many people have already questioned why sites haven’t gone black in protest, as some have done in previous years.

Still, the issue of net neutrality is one that unites many disparate internet communities — a glance at Reddit, for example, reveals prominent pro-net neutrality posts from notorious Gamergaters alongside posts from the technology community and more progressive voices. If nothing else, the Day of Action could remind us that some issues are bipartisan, and hopefully work to convince the FCC to keep the current regulations in place for the protection of everyone on the internet.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect Tumblr’s participation in the Day of Action