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 like 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 were 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,” Mr. 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.
There also does not appear to be much chance of their winning the debate right now. The three Republican members of the F.C.C., 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 start-ups that 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 F.C.C. 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 F.C.C. 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 this past 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 F.C.C. plans:
“Facebook has always supported the kind of strong net neutrality protections that will ensure the internet remains open for everyone,” Ms. 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 that “Microsoft believes in preserving the open internet & opposes weakening net neutrality protections.”
— Brad Smith (@BradSmi) November 28, 2017
Amazon Takes Case to F.C.C.
Amazon representatives have been lobbying F.C.C. commissioners and staff in person, with visits on Nov. 29 and last Wednesday. The latter included a meeting between Ajit Pai, the F.C.C. 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 F.C.C.
“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 is 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.
Netflix supports strong #NetNeutrality. We oppose the FCC's proposal to roll back these core protections.
— Netflix US (@netflix) November 21, 2017
One Twitter user responded by saying the company should do more “to tell people how it will potentially affect them.”
Use your platform. Explain what it is and the concept to all of your customer base on the streaming service platform. Tell people how it will potentially affect them. A tweet is not enough.
— Jon Gogel (@JonGogel) November 21, 2017
Jonathan Friedland, a spokesman for Netflix, said this week that the company did not have anything to add to its earlier statements opposing the F.C.C.’s actions.