Net neutrality protests move online, yet big tech is quiet

  • Reddit, Etsy and Kickstarter were among the sites warning that the proposal at the FCC to roll back so-called net neutrality rules would fundamentally change the way the internet is experienced.
  • The online protests highlighted how the biggest tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, have taken a back seat in the debate.
  • One advocate said the biggest tech companies were less vocal because they are facing more regulatory battles than in past years.
Protesters march past the FCC headquarters before the Commission meeting on net neutrality proposal on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC
Bill O'Leary | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Protesters march past the FCC headquarters before the Commission meeting on net neutrality proposal on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC

Protests to preserve net neutrality, or rules that ensure equal access to the internet, migrated online on Tuesday, with numerous online companies posting calls on their sites for action to stop a vote later this week.

Reddit, Etsy and Kickstarter were among the sites warning that the proposal at the Federal Communications Commission to roll back so-called net neutrality rules would fundamentally change the way the internet is experienced. Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, cleared its entire home screen for a sparse white screen reading “Defend Net Neutrality” in large letters. Reddit, the popular online message board, pushed in multiple ways on its site for keeping the rules, including a pop-up box on its home screen.

But the online protests also highlighted how the biggest tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, have taken a back seat in the debate about protecting net neutrality, rules that prohibit internet service providers such as AT&T and Comcast from blocking or slowing sites or for charging people or companies for faster speeds of particular sites. For the most part, the large tech companies did not engage in the protest on Tuesday. In the past, the companies have played a leading role in supporting the rules.

Harold Feld, a senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that supports net neutrality, said the biggest tech companies were less vocal because they are facing more regulatory battles than in past years. Social media sites have been criticized for allowing foreign actors to interfere in the presidential election of 2016. The biggest tech companies also face complaints from some lawmakers that they have become too large and powerful.

“First, the major tech companies are very aware that Washington has turned hostile,” Feld said. “In this environment, the big tech companies try to keep a low profile and play defense rather than take positions that draw attention.

“So with the dangers of standing up in D.C. greater, their existential concerns about net neutrality reduced because of their own massive size, and a desire not to spook investors, it is unsurprising that Silicon Valley giants have melted into the background and have preferred to work through their trade associations,” he said.

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There also does not appear to be much chance of them winning the debate right now. The three Republican members of the FCC, who make up a majority of commissioners at the agency, have committed to roll back the landmark broadband rules created during the Obama administration.

But consumers and the startups who participated in protests on Tuesday say they are gearing up for a long fight. They expect lawsuits to challenge the change, and plan to push Congress to pass a law ensuring an open internet.

Here is how several of the biggest companies have handled the issue in recent months.

Google backs off

Google has kept a pretty low profile in the recent net neutrality debate. The company issued a statement last month when the proposed changes were announced, saying that the current rules were “working well” and that it was “disappointed” by the new proposal. But for the most part, the company has been working within the Internet Association, an industry group that includes Facebook, Amazon and other large online companies.

It’s a restrained approach compared with Google’s aggressive lobbying campaign in 2006 when Sergey Brin, one of the company’s co-founders, went to Capitol Hill to argue for the importance of net neutrality. In 2010, Google teamed up with Verizon to lay out a vision for how net neutrality could work, advocating against allowing internet service providers to provide fast lanes to people who pay more. However, the proposal was criticized by advocates of an open internet because it excluded wireless connectivity and new services from broadband providers.

Apple enters the debate

Apple is a newcomer to the net neutrality debate. It made its first filing to the FCC on the issue in August. It espoused a position largely in line with other internet giants, arguing against the creation of fast lanes and emphasizing the importance of an open internet.

Apple’s public opposition to the proposed changes also reflects the growing network of services on offer from the company including Apple Music, a streaming music service that also offers video content, and potentially an internet video service to rival Netflix.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said in a statement that all internet service providers should treat all data on the internet equally.

“Equal treatment is critical to innovation in a digital economy and to democracy,” he said. “If the FCC doesn’t provide this basic protection, we urge Congress to intervene.”

Facebook focuses elsewhere

During the last day of online protest in support of the rules, during the summer, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s leaders, posted defiant statements to their personal Facebook pages.

But the executives have been pretty quiet on the issue in recent months. The company’s focus in Washington has been more concentrated on fallout from its handling of Russian-linked propaganda used during the 2016 presidential election.

This week, Facebook offered a statement from Erin Egan, a policy spokeswoman, about the FCC plans:

“Facebook has always supported the kind of strong net neutrality protections that will ensure the internet remains open for everyone,” Egan said. “We are disappointed by the F.C.C.’s decision to remove these protections, and we stand ready to work with policymakers on a framework that will protect a free and open internet.”

Microsoft keeps low profile

Microsoft sent a 23-page letter to the commission later in July outlining the company’s argument that the commission should not change its stance on net neutrality. “Now is not the time for the Commission to abandon 15 years of progress toward protecting the economic future of our country,” the letter said. “Now is not the time for the commission to abandon its open internet rules.”

The company has otherwise kept a relatively low profile on the issue. On Nov. 28, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, tweeted his support of net neutrality rules:

Amazon takes case to FCC

Amazon representatives have been lobbying FCC commissioners and staffers in person, with a visit on Nov. 29 and Dec. 6, the latter of which included a meeting between Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman, and Darren Achord, an Amazon senior public policy manager. “During the meetings, we stated that Amazon has long supported net neutrality protections to ensure our customers can enjoy an open internet, and we emphasized that the company remains committed to that position,” Gerard Waldron, a lawyer who represents Amazon and participated in the meeting, wrote in an account filed with the FCC.

“We stressed the need for enforceable, bright-line rules to protect the open internet and guard against anti-consumer and anti-competitive activities,” he wrote, adding that Amazon opposed the commission’s proposed change.

Netflix turns down the volume

Netflix, once among the most vocal of net neutrality boosters, is perhaps the most conspicuous in its relative silence. In recent months, the company’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, has said net neutrality was no longer the company’s “primary battle,” partly because Netflix is now large enough that it can secure the deals it needs with internet access providers to ensure its service is delivered smoothly to customers.

On Nov. 21, the company posted a note on its primary Twitter account in support of net neutrality:

One Twitter user responded by saying that the company should do more:

Jonathan Friedland, a spokesman for Netflix, said this week that the company did not have anything to add to its earlier statements opposing the FCC’s actions.

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.