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.