Open internet advocates, Silicon Valley giants, and tens of thousands of internet users launched a massive online protest on Wednesday to oppose the Trump administration's plan to dismantle federal rules safeguarding net neutrality, the internet's open access principle.
Organized by a coalition of leading public interest and consumer rights groups, Wednesday's "Day of Action" is designed to send a strong message of resistance to Trump's Federal Communications Commission chief, Republican Ajit Pai, who is leading the effort to roll back the legal basis for the agency's net neutrality protections.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Verizon shouldn't be able to discriminate against legal online content, charge websites for prioritized network treatment, or force consumers to pay extra fees for access to "premium" online services. Pai's plan would allow ISPs to do just that, threatening the open and freewheeling nature of the internet that has made it such a vibrant platform for innovation and free speech, according to net neutrality activists.
"Today's Day of Action marks the beginning of a massive pushback against the effort to remove essential net neutrality protections that benefit all internet users," Chris Lewis, vice president at DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge, which helped organize Wednesday's protest, said in a statement.
"Everyone benefits from the current rules that maintain a free market and level playing field for all websites and services online," Lewis said. "The only people that benefit from eliminating the current net neutrality rules are the big cable and broadband companies who want to favor their own content over their competitors' content and reap billions of dollars in new profits."
The Obama-era FCC enshrined strong net neutrality protections into law in 2015 when it reclassified ISPs as "telecommunications" providers under Title II of the Communications Act. This move, which Pai aims to reverse, gave the FCC the legal authority to prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling legal online comment, or setting up internet "fast lanes" for deep-pocketed content companies at the expense of startups.
Wednesday's protest comes just days after a new poll was released showing very strong public support for the FCC's rules, and the Title II legal authority that underlies them. Support for the FCC's policy crosses party lines, with 73 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats, and 76 percent of independents in favor of the rules.
"Today I stand with those who believe that a free and open internet is a foundational principle of our democracy."
Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a longtime open internet champion whose influence at the agency is somewhat limited because Pai effectively controls the FCC's agenda, issued a statement of strong support for Wednesday's protest.
"Today I stand with those who believe that a free and open internet is a foundational principle of our democracy," said Clyburn. "Its benefits can be felt across our economy and around the globe. That is why I am excited that on this day consumers, entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes, including broadband providers and internet startups, are speaking out with a unified voice in favor of strong net neutrality rules grounded in Title II."
Among the Silicon Valley giants joining Wednesday's protest are Twitter, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Netflix. In total, more than 70,000 websites, online services and internet users are participating, according to protest organizers. Many websites are displaying pro-net neutrality messages, or "blocked" or "buffering" alerts to dramatize what the internet could be like without net neutrality.
"The FCC should abandon its misguided effort to obviate all the work that has been done on behalf of all internet users," Twitter wrote in a blog post.
Google warned that the FCC's rules that "protect the open internet are in danger of being dismantled," and urged internet users to contact the FCC to oppose Pai's plan. "Thanks in part to net neutrality, the open internet has grown to become an unrivaled source of choice, competition, innovation, free expression, and opportunity," the company wrote. "And it should stay that way."
Mozilla, the organization that created the Firefox browser, has gotten especially creative, spoofing the popular Slow TV online phenomenon with a nine-hour video of a soothing voice reading pro-net neutrality comments against a backdrop of extended scenes of clouds, waterfalls and grazing animals.
On a more serious note, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that represents many large tech firms including Amazon, Google, and Netflix, issued a statement highlighting the importance of net neutrality for the economy, especially to ensure that the next generation of startups has access to an open online platform for innovation.
"CCIA is proud to stand beside the public interest groups and internet users to bring attention to the critical importance of net neutrality for US companies and the economy," said Ed Black, the group's president. "Net neutrality promotes the virtuous cycle of innovation that has been a hallmark of the internet's tremendous impact on not just the digital economy but our entire economy."
The nation's largest ISPs hate the FCC's net neutrality policy because it treats them as "common carriers" under a regulatory regime that gives the agency broad power to oversee their business activities. Ever since the current net neutrality rules went into effect, the broadband industry has been furiously lobbying the FCC to roll back the policy. When President Trump chose Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, to lead the FCC in January, the ISPs finally found a sympathetic ear and willing ally.
AT&T, which has long opposed strong FCC rules protecting net neutrality, caused a stir on Tuesday by announcing that it is joining the online protest. The telecom titan's statement prompted ridicule from open internet advocates, because AT&T in fact supports Pai's plan to dismantle the Title II legal basis that gives the FCC the authority to safeguard net neutrality. (It's worth noting that AT&T is currently trying to win approval for its $85 billion purchase of content giant Time Warner, which critics have called a potential nightmare for net neutrality.)
A FCC spokesperson did not immediately respond to request for official agency comment on Wednesday's protest.
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