Net neutrality is one of the foundation pillars of the early internet, but it seems to only appear in headlines when it’s under threat. Indeed, if you asked the average internet user why net neutrality is important to their online experience it’s unlikely they’d be able to tell you—but they’d definitely notice if it was gone.
Simply put, net neutrality is the practice of internet service providers giving equal preference to all websites, so that large powerful corporations that take up loads of bandwidth—such as Netflix or YouTube—don’t have faster speed times than smaller, less trafficked websites. Without net neutrality, ISPs have significantly more power about what content to prioritise, hold back, or block all together. There is also a fear that smaller, lesser known websites will struggle to retain visitors as they will be slower to load than websites and companies who have the money to hire lobbyists and influence internet service providers.
But recently, the fight to save net neutrality heated up once again, as the Obama era regulations that protected it are under threat given the new leadership at the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, appointed by the Trump administration. The Open Internet Order, implemented in 2015, is the target of current FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who is known for his anti-regulatory viewpoints.
On July 12th, there was a Day of Action for Net Neutrality organised by https://www.fightforthefuture.org/ which, according to Vox “reportedly reached 10 million people, inspired between 1.6 million and 2.1 million new comments on the FCC’s website, and generated 3.5 million emails to members of Congress urging them to enact legislation on the issue.” Even major internet companies such as Netflix, Google, and Amazon participated in the day of action, urging their users in various ways to make their voices known.
But while big internet corporations made their voices heard and millions of protesters organised around the cause, not everyone is convinced they actually meant it. The Verge posted a helpful run-down of how the day of action unfolded online, and noted that companies like Google and Twitter didn’t put notes of support on their homepage. Instead, they placed this content on rather hard-to-find blog posts that few people would come across unless they were specifically looking. This was in contrast to sites like Reddit, who, according to The Verge, “placed a pop-up message that slowly loads the text, ‘The internet’s less fun when your favorite sites load slowly, isn’t it?’ The site’s usual homepage image is also animated so it appears to load slowly.”
So why would some of these tech companies claim to support net neutrality but not actually throw all their weight behind it? Some assume it’s because they aren’t as worried about its implications as they claim, and they’d rather not rankle the current administration more than they need to. If they aren’t going to lose users if the Obama era regulations does get reversed, then why should they?
But this is an oversimplification of what’s at stake. As Vox wrote, “anyone who doesn’t view net neutrality as a big deal is failing to consider just how unequal bandwidth access in the US already is, and how crucial a role steady internet access plays in bridging socio-economic gaps. Scaling back net neutrality regulations may not be as immediately visible a disenfranchisement of poor and marginalized citizens as, say, repealing the Affordable Care Act, but the potential societal effects are real.”
While the day of action wasn’t a complete wash, the reality is the current FCC leadership has been unflinching in its stance of reversing net neutrality. Activists who are in this fight will be gearing up for a long battle ahead, one that might even extend beyond the current administration.