Prepare to be assaulted by net neutrality.
On Wednesday, millions of Americans unwittingly will be drawn into the heated battle over the controversial rules for online traffic that Republicans are pushing to dismantle.
Amazon, Google, Netflix and hundreds of other websites that support the rules will post messages on their home pages or send notifications to mobile app users in a coordinated one-day effort warning people of what the Internet might be like without net neutrality.
They will be urged to contact officials in Washington to demand the Federal Communications Commission keep its tough regulatory framework designed to ensure the unfettered flow of content by prohibiting broadband companies from slowing Internet speeds for video streams and other content, selling faster lanes for delivering data or otherwise discriminating against any legal online material.
Internet service providers said they also back an open Internet. But they strongly oppose the stricter oversight of the industry the FCC established two years ago.
With the agency now under Republican control and moving toward repealing that oversight, major Internet companies and others who support the FCC’s rules are trying to rally the public.
“Hopefully this is going to be another really big moment in showing how widespread support for net neutrality is and demonstrating the power of representative government,” said Michal Rosenn, general counsel for crowdfunding site Kickstarter, one of of the participants in what’s billed as the “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality.”
“It’s like a website holding up a protest sign that lets you take action,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights group that is helping coordinating the effort. “We’re trying to make it easy for people who aren’t lawyers or lobbyists.”
But the effort might not have much influence over the Republican majority on the FCC, who have indicated they won’t be swayed by the electronic messages that have been flooding the agency’s public comment site.
More than 5.6 million comments have been received since late April on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to repeal the rules. The initial public comment period ends on Monday. A spokesman for Pai declined to comment.
Melissa Parrish, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the day of action will inflame the partisan divide on the emotionally charged issue and isn’t likely to change any minds at the FCC.
“If you boil it down to the most basic level, net neutrality is about regulating business practices… and the Republican platform is that is not ideal, the free market is what should reign,” she said.
Urged on by President Obama, the FCC’s then-Democratic majority voted 3-2 along party lines to in 2015 to put the rules in place. To enforce them, the FCC took the controversial step of classifying broadband as a more highly regulated utility-like service under Title 2 of federal telecommunications law.
Broadband providers strongly opposed the move because they said the stricter regulatory oversight would be too burdensome and they feared it would lead to rate regulation and squelch industry investment.
Republicans gained the FCC majority with President Trump’s election. And in January, he appointed Pai, a Republican who has served on the FCC since 2012, to head the commission.
Pai has proposed to repeal the utility-like oversight as well as the agency’s vague general conduct standard, which sought to protect Internet users from future unreasonably discriminatory practices.
Kickstarter was among dozens of websites that participated in a similar online protest in 2014 as the FCC was considering net neutrality rules. Organizers said the outpouring of public comments triggered by what was called “Internet Slowdown Day” helped convince Obama and FCC Democrats to support the stricter rules.
The hope is Wednesday’s protest will help keep the rules in place, either by convincing the FCC’s Republicans not to proceed with their plans or by pushing Congress to take action.
“We are here because of that open Internet, and we continue to thrive because of it,” Rosenn said. “If we had to compete based on how much we could pay AT&T and Comcast to make sure the videos on our site load quickly, I don’t think we’d be in that position.”
This would jeopardize one of the defining features of the Internet: openness and consumer choice.
The sprawling discussion forum site Reddit made the same argument in a blog post Monday announcing its participation.
“Without net neutrality, these providers could privilege their own content or slow down other traffic for their own profit,” the company said. “This would jeopardize one of the defining features of the Internet: openness and consumer choice.”
Broadband companies said they support the basic principles of net neutrality but oppose the FCC’s utility-like oversight. AT&T Inc. said in a blog post Tuesday it would join the day of action by touting its support for an open Internet on its websites, channel guides and apps on Wednesday as well as in digital, TV and print advertisements.
But AT&T and other broadband providers want Congress to pass legislation codifying the rules and giving the FCC specific authority to enforce them without the extra regulatory risks from the stricter Title 2 oversight.
Such a move would prevent the FCC from changing course every time the majority switches.
“Net neutrality is not controversial. Title 2 is politically controversial,” said Michael Powell, president of NCTA — the Internet & Television Assn., a trade group that includes cable companies. “We think this really needs to go to legislation so that net neutrality rules are permanently enshrined in statute and properly balanced against the disincentives for investment.”
Powell said he was worried that the onslaught of what he called misleading net neutrality messages by Google and other websites on Wednesday would make it harder to get the bipartisan support needed for legislation.
“Showing consumers examples of slow loading pages and spinning dials is just a complete fabrication” of what would happen without the FCC’s strict oversight of the industry, he said. “It’s just hardening the partisan divide of the issue.”
But Greer of Fight for the Future said the day of action allows supporters of the FCC’s net neutrality rules to counter what he called “misinformation” by the broadband providers.
“The Internet have given more people a voice than ever before and that transformative power is worth fighting for,” she said.