Net Neutrality Protest? Proposed FCC Rules Spark Some Criticism, But Widespread SOPA-Style Protest May Not Materialize

Will opposition emerge as FCC votes on rules that could fundamentally change the Internet?

Reddit Reddit mascots are displayed at the company's headquarters in San Francisco, California April 15, 2014.

As the Federal Communications Commission weighs a controversial proposal that would let broadband providers charge a toll for an Internet fast lane, the threat of an Internet blackout is in the air as prominent tech companies voice their objections. But for now, at least, it doesn’t look very likely that the criticism will grow to the level reached two years ago when major websites went dark to protest government intrusion.

In April, Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s chairman, drafted new rules that some say would spell the end of Net neutrality, the principle that all content on the Internet should be treated equally. The rules, which would allow cable providers to provide selectively faster service to companies that are willing to pay for it, are still in the draft phase, and the FCC is expected to vote May 15 on whether to formally propose them.

Some companies aren’t waiting until then to fight back against what they see as a mortal threat to the basic idea of an open Internet -- an idea we’ve taken for granted since the technology became commonplace in the 1990s. On Monday, Mozilla Corp., creator of the popular Firefox browser, filed a request with the FCC urging it to “modernize its understanding of Internet access services, and apply its statutory authority for Internet data delivery services in a consistent and complete way.” In a nutshell, Mozilla said the FCC’s proposal should establish clear rules to prohibit the throttling of some content over others. “We plan to continue working with policymakers and thought leaders on Internet policy to develop and advance these ideas over the next few weeks,” wrote Chris Riley, Mozilla’s senior policy engineer, in a blog post.

Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX), which has been extremely vocal about its opposition to paying “tolls” to Internet service providers like Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ:CMCSA), has also taken up the issue with the FCC. According to Reuters, the video-streaming company met with the commission over several days last week. Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix, has been among the most outspoken proponents of Net neutrality, writing several blog posts and Facebook status updates on the issue.

But as Netflix and Mozilla airs their grievances, some of the largest Internet companies have been silent on Wheeler’s drafted rules. That’s a stark departure from the uproar over the 2012 Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a now-abandoned effort by the U.S. government to broaden the powers of law enforcement in an effort to crack down on copyright infringement. In a widespread protest in January of that year, many websites -- including Wikipedia, Yahoo’s Flickr and Google’s YouTube -- either voiced their opposition or went completely dark in a daylong protest.

Whether or not we’ll see the same fever pitch in the leadup to the May 15 vote remains to be seen. While some articles have made vague references to possible grassroots protests, few websites have openly committed to it. A spokesman for Mozilla told International Business Times that the company is “considering additional activities” in addition to its Monday filing. Other sites involved with the SOPA protest, including Yahoo Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) and the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, have not responded to requests for comment.

In contrast, Reddit Inc., which was helped initiate the SOPA protest, is once again taking a stand. A spokeswoman for the popular message board referred IBTimes to a Monday article on the Verge in which two Reddit executives -- general manager Erik Martin and co-founder Alexis Ohanian -- came out against Wheeler’s proposed rules, citing a potential detriment to smaller online companies that would not be able to pay for access to fast lanes. “I don't think that Reddit as we know it, and especially the next Reddit, the next small company, will be able to develop and thrive,” Martin told the website.

The Verge reports that Reddit is planning a sitewide protest on May 15. In the meantime, more and more Net neutrality proponents are attempting to mobilize and spread the word in advance of the FCC’s vote. The YouTube video creator CGP Grey posted a video attempting to simplify the admittedly confusing mechanics of Net neutrality and what’s at stake if it is done away with. The video has attracted almost 50,000 in less than a day. Watch the full video below.

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