When you go online on July 12, you’re going to be bombarded with reminders that the Trump administration has promised to soon kill net neutrality, laying the groundwork for an internet chopped up into fast and slow lanes.
In what’s shaping up to be the most visible online protest in five years, some of the most popular sites on the internet — including Reddit, Amazon, and Vimeo — have promised to, in some way or another, shove it in visitors’ faces that the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commision wants to reverse existing net neutrality protections.
Use the OKCupid app, and you’ll be greeted with a link asking you to write to the FCC and Congress. Try to browse Pornhub, and you might have to wait for a slow “loading” icon first. The SoundCloud app will ask users if they'd like to learn more about net neutrality and how they can help. Kickstarter is still undecided, but is thinking of repeating what it did for a similar protest in 2015: a space to give your zip code and phone number so you would automatically call your representative in Congress. Plenty of other major sites and services promise they’re participating, but still haven’t decided exactly what they’re going to do. “It will be noticeable when you use Netflix and will prompt consumers to take action,” said Bao Nguyen, a spokesperson for the company.
Many of these sites want to stress that net neutrality, which keeps internet providers from choosing which websites can be accessed at full bandwidth, is essential for new startups. Netflix, for example, famously accused providers of throttling traffic in 2014 when the site’s ballooning streaming video service required enormous bandwidth. “We're joining this day of action to ensure the next Netflix has a fair shot to go the distance,” Netflix spokesperson Nguyen said.
The campaign is the latest from online activists Fight For the Future, an internet freedom nonprofit run by a handful of activists around the world, who only regularly meet online. In 2012, Fight for the Future convinced more than 100,000 sites, by its count—mostly small personal sites, but also heavy hitters like Wikipedia and Craigslist, to put up banners and pop-up ads asking the internet to call their representative in Congress to oppose SOPA, a copyright enforcement bill that promised to pave the way for easy censorship. That protest, alongside a concurrent campaign by Google, worked, and the bill died after members of Congress dropped out, citing constituents’ opposition.
Try to browse Pornhub, and you might have to wait for a slow “loading” icon first.
This time, it might not be as easy. In theory, the decision to gut net neutrality isn’t yet settled. From now through August, the FCC is soliciting the public’s comments on whether to keep the rules, created by President Obama’s FCC in 2015 and strengthened by several subsequent court rulings, that preserve net neutrality as a strict federal regulation.
But despite widespread support for net neutrality — it’s popular among voters of all political stripes, endorsed by hundreds of Silicon Valley startups, and even the major internet service providers admit it hasn’t hampered their growth — it’s become a starkly partisan issue. While the Democratic Party only formally endorsed net neutrality in 2016, the GOP platform staunchly opposes it, referring to the rules that protect it as a regulation that hampers “internet freedom” — as in, a provider’s freedom to be a gatekeeper between customers and certain areas of the internet — a stance largely only held by providers themselves, which are heavy political donors, and affiliated trade associations.
To that end, President Trump has appointed Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer and longtime anti-net neutrality troll, as his FCC chair. Pai announced his plans to unwind net neutrality three months after he got the job.
Even if Pai does remain unconvinced by a massive public outcry, a sympathetic Congress could try make net neutrality an actual law. That would require Trump to sign such a bill, though. Given his sole public comment about net neutrality is a tweet in which he nonsensically compared it with an old FCC broadcast regulation that asked broadcasters to share both sides of a given issue and claimed it would hurt conservative media, he may not be inclined.