Online Protest Planned Over Rollback of Net Neutrality Rules

By John D. McKinnon and Douglas MacMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

Major internet companies are preparing to launch online protests Wednesday over Republican efforts to roll back Obama-era net neutrality rules, employing a tactic that has helped drive policy shifts in past years.

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The question is whether it will have the same impact this time. Silicon Valley and its supporters no longer have the same level of support in government that they enjoyed under the tech-friendly Obama administration, and the current Federal Communications Commission has already made clear its plans to significantly scale back the net neutrality rules. The GOP-controlled Congress is unlikely to intervene.

The Republican-led FCC voted in May to begin the process of rolling back the rules, and it's expected to complete the process in the fall. The rules, adopted in 2015, generally require telecommunications companies that provide online access, such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp., to treat all internet traffic the same and not slow or block some sites.

Many big internet companies, such as Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc., would like to keep the rules in place, arguing they are important to maintaining healthy competition on the internet. Big internet companies worry, for example, that without the strong rules, the providers could use internet fast lanes to push their own online services.

But the providers contend that the rules represent an unnecessary overreach by the government that could stifle investment and innovation and ultimately competition.

Republicans recently have sided with the telecommunications firms, while Democrats lately have been more sympathetic to the internet firms.

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Wednesday's day of protest is aimed at demonstrating the grass-roots appeal of the net neutrality rules, and weakening political support among Republicans for the rollback.

Major organizers, including a coalition of online activists known as Battle for the Net, as well as the Internet Association, a trade group, say much of the effort will be aimed at generating consumer calls and emails to Washington policy makers. That includes the FCC's three commissioners as well as members of Congress. Some sites also could run more slowly than normal, according to organizers, or at least briefly appear to.

Battle for the Net has been offering online firms sample messages that mimic slowdowns, including one it calls "spinning wheel of death."

"Don't worry, none of these will actually block, slow or paywall your site," the group says. "But, they will let your users submit a comment to the FCC and Congress without having to leave your platform."

A graphic the group offers for social media users shows a cat riding a unicorn and wielding a handgun, with the caption, "Keep the Internet Weird. Defend Net Neutrality."

Vimeo, the video-streaming and sharing site owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, plans to join the protest by promoting a two-minute video about net neutrality on its home page. The video urges users to call and write letters to the FCC to keep the internet open.

"We live in a world where the broadband carriers can decide who gets what at what speed," said Michael Cheah, general counsel at Vimeo. "There is going to be a very powerful incentive for some of them to disadvantage us and our offerings."

Political activism is becoming more important for tech startups, Mr. Cheah added. "We are seeing a large trend toward consolidation in a number of industries, and one of them is the telecom and internet content space," he said. "It is important for companies big and small to voice their concerns with that."

Despite the elaborate preparations, some organizers say the effort has been more decentralized than past internet protests, including those that helped galvanize support for the strong 2015 rules. Another protest in 2012 helped scuttle antipiracy legislation that was favored by much of the entertainment industry.

This week's protest also likely faces longer odds of success than previous ones over net neutrality and antipiracy rules, because Republicans on the FCC appear determined to go ahead with the rollback.

"We will not rely on hyperbolic statements about the end of the internet as we know it, and 140-character argle-bargle [nonsense], but rather on the data," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in May.

For their part, Republican leaders in Congress would love to draft compromise legislation to scale back, but not eliminate, the net-neutrality rules. But they have been stymied by partisan strife.

Some observers say the protests could actually make legislation more difficult.

"This protest won't live up to the hype, because it won't change the outcome at all," said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a market-oriented advocacy group. "We already know that Republican commissioners reject the [Obama-era] FCC's sweeping claims of legal authority...Sadly, the goal here seems to be to make legislation harder, not easier."

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 11, 2017 16:20 ET (20:20 GMT)