Web Firms Protest Efforts to Roll Back Net Neutrality -- Update

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

Dozens of major online firms launched protests against Republican efforts to roll back Obama-era net-neutrality rules, in an escalation of tensions over Washington's proper role in the internet.

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"Protect Internet Freedom. Defend Net Neutrality," a banner on Netflix Inc.'s home page said, offering users a link to submit comments to the GOP-led Federal Communications Commission, which is considering the rollback plan. Protesters argue the rollback could allow internet providers to block websites or force them into slow lanes unless they pay.

"The internet's less fun when your favorite sites load slowly, isn't it?" said a message that slowly typed out on Reddit, an aggregation site.

Blake Irving, GoDaddy Inc.'s chief executive officer, said in a prominently displayed blog post that "nothing less than our long-term economic well-being is at stake."

But the protests appeared to be causing little real disruption Wednesday. And some big players, including Alphabet Inc. unit Google, were content with relatively low-key efforts.

Google posted an item on its public-policy blog supporting the current net-neutrality rules that it also sent out as an email to people on its "Take Action" list. Its main search page made no mention of the protest, however, and featured a Doodle honoring the late Japanese artist and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, whose birthday is July 12.

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Amazon.com Inc. placed a box on its home page saying, "Net neutrality? Learn more." It linked to a page where users could send comments to the FCC.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a posting to his followers that Facebook "strongly" supports the current rules but also is "open to working with members of Congress" on new legislation to protect net neutrality, something Republicans have sought in recent years but haven't achieved because of partisan strife.

On Tuesday, a day ahead of the protest, Republican House leadership staff held a meeting with high-tech representatives that, according to one person familiar with the matter, was confrontational at times.

Another person familiar with the meeting said the companies weren't being chastised, and described it as a "broad discussion" about the scope of companies' planned participation in the day of protest. The meeting involved several big internet platforms, including Google and Facebook, as well as a high-tech trade group, the Internet Association.

Republicans generally have sided with internet providers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., who regard the rules as an overreach that could hurt investment and innovation. The rules had reclassified broadband as a utility-type service subject to potentially stringent regulation.

Aides to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R., La.) and others attended the meeting, according to one person familiar with the matter.

A spokesman for the Internet Association, Noah Theran, said in a statement: "Net neutrality is a bipartisan issue, and Internet Association remains committed to working with all stakeholders to protect and preserve strong rules."

The protests were said by organizers to involve tens of thousands of people, websites and organizations, are aimed at highlighting public support for the rules adopted in 2015.

Net neutrality is essential to ensuring the survival of the next wave of innovative startup companies, said Michal Rosenn, general counsel at Brooklyn-based Kickstarter.

"Like most internet companies, we started off small," Ms. Rosenn said. "We know that we depended on a level playing field to get Kickstarter up and running to become the company we are today."

The GOP-led FCC approved a plan in May to substantially overhaul and narrow the rules. Supporters of the current rules face an uphill fight.

Big telecommunications firms were trying to sound conciliatory Wednesday, and AT&T Inc. went so far as to join the "day of action."

But other firms sounded frustrated by the protests. "The day of action isn't designed to educate consumers about sensible policies, rather its goal is to scare them into thinking their internet experience will somehow suddenly be degraded if the FCC restores light touch regulation, " said the NCTA, a cable trade group, in a blog post. "Don't believe the hype."

The Trump administration is siding with the FCC. "The Trump administration supports the FCC's efforts to roll back burdensome, monopoly-era regulations," an administration official said in a statement. "We all believe in fair rules of the road for everyone -- consumers, [internet providers] and website providers, and we believe that legislation is the best way to provide a stable, predictable environment for growth and innovation by the entire internet ecosystem."

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com and Douglas MacMillan at douglas.macmillan@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 12, 2017 17:33 ET (21:33 GMT)