Wednesday, forces aligned in favor of stronger net neutrality rules will rally under the banner of Internet Slowdown Day, the latest push to funnel the public's attention to the Federal Communication Commission's on-going rulemaking on open Internet principles and practices.
First things first. Slowdown Day will not feature any actual slowing down of the Internet. The reason it won't? The same reason why this is a fascinating moment in the history of Internet activism. Companies participating in the protest, like Vimeo, Etsy and reddit, have become the digital infrastructure of the Internet age. Slowing down their services is likely to anger their audiences (not to mention, in some cases, their shareholders). In other words, they've become essential -- Too Big to Slow? -- but that also gives them enormous power. They have the ability to draw millions upon millions of eyeballs to the spinning loading icon that will be featured on their sites.
That spinning logo is one way that Web sites and Web users will be participating. Another is changing one's avatar, on Twitter or Facebook or what have you, to the icon. The hope is that the action will spread like a contagion, if one given a little push. Commit, the campaign is asking of its allies, to getting one person or company with a bigger reach than you to join in as well.
I asked Tim Karr, the campaign director for Free Press, one of the groups leading the campaign, what -- to borrow a phrase from organizers and activists -- the theory of change is here?
In brief, it's that scores of folks trolling the Internet Wednesday will see the spinning logo and recall their innate dislike of a slow-moving Internet. Then they will submit comments to the FCC by the Sept. 15 deadline for response comments. And Karr and others hope, the masses will contact their member of Congress to push for the FCC to go all-in on what's called Title II reclassification -- that is, regulating the Internet under the provisions of the law that apply to essential communications services.
That Title II is widely accepted as the default "best choice" in the net neutrality debate among what reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian calls Team Internet (there are cat tees) is a fairly new normal, Karr admits. Same goes for the fact that cable companies, like Comcast, are public backers of the concept of net neutrality, although they differ on what that means. That creation of conventional wisdom has taken nine years and is, says Karr, "a pretty major accomplishment."
In part, that consensus has come about because the powers-that-be on the Web have discovered how to tap their assets, instead of simply relying upon attempts to mimic the powers-that-be that run the Internet dollar-for-dollar. The cable companies have millions of dollars, but our side will prevail because we have millions of people, is how David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress puts it. And there's something to that statement of strength. If Comcast injects itself into the Internet, it's thought of as a violation. If Etsy does it, it's a demonstration of their commitment to the Internet's core values.
That said, those interventions have had varying degrees of success. The Web blackout tied to the SOPA/PIPA digital copyright bills gained enormous attention, in part because it was the first time that companies like Google and organizations like Wikipedia used their digital properties to political end. But there have been flawed executions, too. In the wake of the SOPA-PIPA victory, advocates rallied around the idea of an Internet cat signal to be triggered whenever the Internet is in danger. But danger is in the eye of beholder, and the cat signal wrestled with diverging opinions amongst its advocates. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), for example, helped kick off the cat signal but was a proponent of CISPA, a cybersecurity bill to which many others on Team Internet were strongly opposed.
To be sure, not everyone is a fan of the great Slowdown. Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank, is calling the campaign an attempt to "whip up the masses" by harnessing a sort of "technological McCarthyism."
But net neutrality has largely sanded down many of the rough edges of the online coalition. It has emerged as not simply a statement of values but as the existential fight for the future of the Internet; one of the groups organizing Wednesday's day of action alongside Free Press is called Fight for the Future. At some point Team Internet is going to find itself facing the same challenges that activists of all stripes find themselves running into: There are only so many times you can black out, slow down or send up a cat signal. But that moment has yet to arrive.
In part, that's because the online public seems to agree with the coalition when it says of the slowdown: "We realize it's a big ask, but this is the kind of bad Internet legislation that comes along (or gets this close to passing) once a decade or so. If it passes we'll be kicking ourselves for decades."