Next Wednesday, Sept. 10, if your favorite website seems to load slowly, take a closer look: You might be experiencing the Battle for the Net’s “Internet Slowdown,” a global day of grass-roots action. Protesters won’t actually slow the Internet down, but will place on their websites animated “Loading” graphics (which organizers call “the proverbial ‘spinning wheel of death’”) to symbolize what the Internet might soon look like. As that wheel spins, the rules about how the internet works are being redrawn. Large Internet service providers, or ISPs, like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon are trying to change the rules that govern your online life.
The fight over these rules is being waged now. These corporate ISPs want to create a two-tiered Internet, where some websites or content providers pay to get preferred access to the public. Large content providers like Netflix, the online streaming movie giant, would pay extra to ensure that their content traveled on the fast lane. But let’s say a startup tried to compete with Netflix. If it couldn’t afford to pay the large ISPs their fees for the fast lane, their service would suffer, and people wouldn’t subscribe.
The Internet is protected from this two-tiered, discriminatory practice through regulated “net neutrality,” the fundamental principle of the Internet that allows any user to access Web content freely without any corporation censoring the content or slowing down the connection. Because so much of the world’s Internet traffic passes through the United States, the way that the U.S. regulates the Internet impacts the entire planet. Sadly, the state of Internet regulation in the U.S., under the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission, is in crisis. The Obama-appointed FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, has proposed new rules for the Internet that would effectively do away with net neutrality, allowing large ISPs to create these separate fast lanes and slow lanes.
Let’s look further at the example of Netflix. Streaming video depends on ample bandwidth. Customers with Internet at home provided by Comcast were complaining that their Netflix video was streaming poorly, with frequent buffering. So, last February, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for “paid prioritization,” meaning Netflix Internet traffic would flow to the customers faster than other Internet traffic, on a fast lane. Since then, Netflix has inked similar deals with AT&T, Verizon and Time-Warner. VHX is a small, New York-based video-streaming startup company. VHX’s CEO, Jamie Wilkinson, expressed his concern, writing on the VHX blog: “The companies with which we compete—Apple, Amazon, Google, the cable companies themselves—can afford to pay for a ‘fast lane’ ... We do not have that luxury.” VHX will “live or die” he wrote, based on the strength of net neutrality rules.
Corporate censorship is also a concern. Let’s say you advocate for union rights, in support of striking workers. A large Internet service provider could block your website, denying the public access to critical information. This is not hypothetical. In Canada in 2005, workers at the corporate ISP Telus went on strike. One of the strikers developed a website, Voices for Change, which supported the strike. Telus denied its Internet customers access to the website until the corporate censorship became national news. But if large ISPs get their way, this type of censorship could become routine.
In conjunction with the Sept. 10 “Internet Slowdown,” organizers are promising to “drive record numbers of emails and calls to lawmakers.” The Sunlight Foundation analyzed 800,000 comments already filed on this issue with the FCC. Of those, 99 percent supported strict rules protecting net neutrality. The protest organizers are demanding that Internet service be reclassified as a public utility, like telephone service. Imagine if the phone company were allowed to downgrade the quality of your phone call because you didn’t pay for the premium service. With nondiscrimination rules governing utilities, people get the same service. Currently, the FCC has labeled the Internet as an “information service,” subject to less-restrictive consumer protections.
The FCC has long been considered a “captured agency,” beholden to the corporations it is supposed to regulate. Unfortunately, before becoming FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler enjoyed a long career as the top lobbyist for both the cellular phone industry and the cable industry. In previous battles over Internet governance, massive public outcry has prevailed. If the power of the people fails this time to overwhelm the power of corporate money in Washington, D.C., then the “Internet Slowdown,” far from being a one-day protest, may become a constant condition. Whatever position you take, email President Barack Obama and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler—while you still can.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.