Tech Companies Rally to Protest Rollback of Net Neutrality

The free and open internet is at risk, a large group of companies and advocates insist, and they want the public’s help to save it.

By:  Rachel Lerman
Source: The Seattle Times

“Sorry, we’re stuck in the slow lane.”

That will be the message on thousands of websites Wednesday as companies join to protest a proposed rollback of open internet protection rules.

The homepage of Seattle search-engine optimization company Moz will sport a similar support banner calling for people to take action. The website hasn’t actually slowed down, but rather the company is warning of a future where the internet does not have the same protections as it does today.

The free and open internet is at risk, a large group of companies and advocates insist, and they want the public’s help to save it.

More than 70,000 companies, individuals and nonprofits worldwide are displaying digital banners on their websites Wednesday to urge people to sign a petition and write to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect net neutrality — the idea that the internet should be open, accessible and fair for all, and just as easy to visit one website as any other.

Amazon, Expedia, Google, Twitter and Netflix are among those that hope to garner enough support to persuade the FCC to keep the current net neutrality regulations in place.

Without net neutrality, the companies claim, some websites could be slower to load and harder to access than others — making things tougher for growing businesses, as well as anyone who browses the internet.

The action comes before an expected FCC vote next month that could roll back 2015 rules regulating internet service providers, such as Comcast or Verizon. The now Republican-led FCC says the regulations are hindering investment in the broadband industry.

But others, including several Seattle-area companies, say the regulations are necessary to keep the internet an equitable service for everyone. Without them, some companies might be able to pay more to make their sites load faster and show up more often — putting others at a disadvantage.

“I really fear that it would create future digital ghettos where people get stuck in inferior services,” Moz CEO Sarah Bird said. “I believe the internet should be a right, and not a luxury good.”

In the Seattle area, Amazon, Expedia, Redfin, Avvo, the city of Seattle and several other organizations have signed up to participate in the day of action.

Without an open internet, “many businesses, including ours, could be negatively impacted,” said Kevin Goldsmith, chief technology officer of online legal marketplace Avvo. “Instead of a company’s success stemming from innovation, internet businesses could be subject to the bias and control of cable, telecom and wireless internet providers.”

In 2015, the FCC — then controlled by Democrats — implemented rules that classified internet service providers as “common carriers” under a 1934 law called Title II that was originally intended to regulate telephone companies. That classification, which was held up in court, gave the FCC greater authority to regulate the internet service providers.

Now, the recently appointed Republican chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has proposed a plan to roll back the Title II designation, saying that it is quashing innovation and investment in the broadband industry. People would be better served, Pai said, without the regulations because internet service providers would invest more in their networks and new technologies.

Opponents warn that if the regulations are reversed, a “pay to play” model could take effect. If Netflix paid an internet service provider more than Hulu did, for example, Netflix movies might stream much faster and smoother than Hulu videos.

That could make it harder for smaller companies to compete and could limit consumers’ access to the content they want online, advocates of net neutrality say. In the Puget Sound area, some worry it could stifle the region’s growing entrepreneurial community.

“In particular for our state and our city, in order for innovation to continue you want to have this original rule of fair and equitable access,” said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. “The internet is a shared resource like water, like electricity, like roads.”

Matt Shobe, co-founder and chief product officer at Seattle startup Mighty AI, is already bracing for the potential impact of the FCC’s action. The startup operates an app that pays people to complete short, online tasks to help companies develop their artificial intelligence technology.

If net neutrality was erased, he said, international users might be able to access the app easier than U.S. users. Ultimately, that could skew the app’s results and decrease the company’s reliability with customers.

“It’s already hard enough to get noticed, to compete well, to build a business that matters to people,” Shobe said. The startup is adding a feature to its app Wednesday that points people toward an online petition in favor of net neutrality.

The FCC’s proposed reversal of net neutrality is now open for public comments and will go to a final vote in mid-August. It is currently expected to pass, with two of the three commissioners in favor.

The 2015 FCC decision is serving to “threaten the open internet it purported to preserve,” the FCC proposal states. Internet providers are not investing as much as they once were in infrastructure and need a lighter regulatory touch, it says.

In an April blog post, an executive from Comcast, one of the largest internet service providers, said the company supports net neutrality — but not the current regulations, which impede investment.

“Title II is not net neutrality,” senior executive Vice President David L. Cohen wrote.

In a separate post, the company said it would not “block, slow down or discriminate against lawful content.”

Kirkland-based internet provider Wave also said it doesn’t let companies pay for priority service or throttle access. Title II “could be a burden,” said Harold Zeitz, Wave president and chief operating officer. Zeitz called Title II “a completely separate issue” from open internet access, and said it could impose regulatory expenses on the company.

But advocates of the net-neutrality rules say reversing them could be a slippery slope.

At a town-hall event in downtown Seattle last week, Sen. Maria Cantwell and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, both Democrats, fielded questions from residents, nearly all of them concerned about how the rule change would affect their access to the internet.

Clyburn, the sole Democratic commissioner, opposes the reversal, saying the public needs the FCC as a referee.

“We need to make plain that the things that you take for granted each and every day in terms of your relationships online, your interactions online — that could change,” she said in an interview after the town hall.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit that advocates for consumer’s digital rights, has come out strongly in favor of the current regulations.

“The internet is pretty fundamental infrastructure nowadays,” said Corynne McSherry, legal director of the EFF. “We use it to get jobs, we use it to access health care, we use it to access education.

“When you buy a television, you don’t think that Samsung is going to make a decision about what you watch. You just want them to sell you the equipment and get out of the way.”