10 Sep 2014

Net neutrality protest: will it make any difference?

Netflix, Reddit and Tumblr are among the sites taking part in a mass online protest over new net neutrality rules proposed in the US. But will it have any impact on real world policy?

The sites are displaying a “loading” icon and directing users to a campaign website in the hope to draw attention to their fears that, under US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans, the principle that all online traffic should be treated equally will be thrown away at a stroke.

That, they say, would potentially allow the internet service providers (ISPs) to slow to a crawl any traffic they did not consider a priority. The protesting websites, which organisers said numbered around 8,000, also hope to convince people worried about the issue to contact the US government to voice their opposition.

But, despite the overt support of three of the internet’s biggest names – and many more of its smaller ones, most of the real giants are not taking part. Google, Facebook and Twitter are thought to be broadly supportive but are not actively getting involved in the protest by displaying the icon. Moreover, critics could argue that the demonstration largely symbolic.

So even with the ability to reach hundreds of millions of people today, can they really hope to sway the US government?

It is not about whether or not Google gets on board … We are not looking for the big sites to save us. Evan Greer, campaign organiser

“Awareness is the key at this stage,” says Matthew Howett, a telecommunications analyst at Ovum. “Until now, the debate has been very academic and ideological on both sides. It has almost been confined to 500-page submissions. What this campaign does is make your mother and grandmother aware of this issue.”

And that, for today, is enough, he says.

His view is backed up by Liba Rubenstein, director of social impact and public policy at Tumblr. She says: “success today is demonstrating to elected officials that this is an issue that animates their constituents and letting the FCC know citizens want them to do the right thing.”

‘Internet slowdown’

And Evan Greer of the non-profit Fight for the Future organisation – one of the campaign’s organisers – adds: “many movements have affected change from the bottom up. It is not about whether or not Google gets on board, it is about whether the FCC chooses to listen to the public. We are not looking for the big sites to save us.”

The websites involved in the protest are displaying a spinning wheel icon, which indicates a page is loading. They say they want to show how parts of the internet would look under the two-tiered system proposed by the FCC.

The websites are not actually slowing down but users who click on icons are taken to a website where they can read about how to take action on the issue.

Net neutrality

Net neutrality – the idea that all online traffic should be treated equally – has long been accepted as an important principle of the internet. But in January this year, the US Court of Appeals ruled that there was no obligation on broadband providers to abide by it.

The FCC, in seeking to give legal clarity, is proposing rules that many technology firms say would effectively allow the ISPs to create a fast lane for websites that pay, leaving the smaller players in a slower lane. That, opponents argue, would also allow them to put rivals’ services at a disadvantage by slowing them down.

The commission argues it is trying to protect net neutrality, in part by banning ISPs from outright blocking downloads of legal content. And some of the ISPs argue that giving preference to more popular, data-hungry services – such as Netflix – is what consumers want.


Wednesday’s campaign is similar to those that succeeded in seeing off the SOPA and PIPA American anti-piracy bills in 2012. Many sites put a blackout in place in protest at proposals they said amounted to censorship.

The FCC’s rules will only affect America. But the European Commission is currently debating its own approach to net neutrality and is expected to make an announcement in the next few months.

The European debate, however, is very different. In April this year, Europe’s courts came down on the side of net neutrality, prompting fears that those more data-hungry services will be unable to run because ISPs have to maintain a level playing field.

While not the very first salvo in the current battle, today’s campaign is one of the most vocal thus far. And it certainly will not be the last, Howett says. He predicts that the biggest players, who he says have been lobbying behind the scenes, will make a more public appearance at a later stage:

“What we are in now is an intense period of public persuasion where the lobbyists on both sides are trying to win the hearts and minds of consumers before the FCC’s decision. There is effectively a week left of public consultation and this is the most obvious and vocal attempt yet to convince the everyday consumer to care.

“It is about the moment that the big names take their campaigns public,” he says. Given the way the debate is heating up, that could be just around the corner.”