On Wednesday, some of the Web's biggest properties are staging a day of Internet protest to draw attention to net neutrality — the idea that broadband providers shouldn't speed up, slow down, block or otherwise manipulate the traffic that you request online. The demonstration will involve the likes of Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Etsy and WordPress, just to name a few. These sites will all show their visitors a "loading" icon representing how looser restrictions on Internet service providers (ISPs) could result in slower Web services for some. (Protest organizers are making clear that the icon won't actually slow down the Web, but simply act as a symbol.)
In addition to showing the slow-loading graphic, many sites are taking things even further. Tumblr plans to release a video featuring actor Mark Ruffalo, who is an avid Tumblr user. Tumblr will also be asking visitors to its site to call and e-mail lawmakers in Congress, and promoting a net neutrality hashtag on social media.
"A multi-tiered system," Tumblr said in a statement, "catered purely to the economic interests of broadband providers with termination monopolies to end consumers, will undoubtedly harm innovation and competition in industries reliant on the Internet (a set of industries that now extends far beyond the usual 'tech' sector) and stifle free expression for millions of users of Tumblr."
Etsy is calling on its users to create handmade crafts that address net neutrality. Policy director Althea Erickson said in a recent Etsy forum post that the site will promote net neutrality-themed artwork heavily in the hours leading up to the protest and that the company may even deliver a few of the crafts to the Federal Communications Commission to be submitted as public comments. Examples include this embroidered loading symbol and these engraved housewares, according to Etsy spokeswoman Nikki Summer. (A whole group on Etsy has sprung up to plan and coordinate this action.)
WordPress.com is making the loading icon available to all of its individual bloggers, according to a person familiar with the plans, so that visitors will have to click through the icon — and get a prompt to take action — before getting to read the blog's content.
Meanwhile, the Web hosting provider Namecheap took out the domain netneutrality.com and has turned the site into an advocacy page for net neutrality. It's also placed calls to action on the administrative dashboards of many Web site operators.
"This effort is way beyond our hands at this point," said Evan Greer, one of the initial protest organizers at Fight for the Future. "We threw the spark into the Internet and it's been spreading wildly. ... It's important to make it easy for everyone to participate in a way that makes sense for them."
The temptation to draw parallels with earlier Internet protests, such as the widespread content blackouts in response to the online piracy legislation known as SOPA and PIPA, is strong. Marvin Ammori, a net neutrality legal scholar, said Sept. 10's protest would be "the biggest thing the Internet has done" since those demonstrations.
But every day of protest is different, activists say, including this one. This time, the targets of the action are not lawmakers whose votes could determine in a matter of hours whether a piece of controversial legislation passes or fails. Instead, the Internet slowdown day is much more about process — urging consumers to write to the FCC ahead of the final Sept. 15 comment deadline, an act that will inform a bigger decision-making system. Without as much immediate urgency as there was with SOPA and PIPA, organizers say there isn't as much need for drastic action.
That hasn't stopped some from exploring how to actually slow down the Internet as a form of protest. Networking experts say it would be "trivial" for sites like Netflix to bring its own service to crawl. Such a move would likely inflame public opinion in the same manner as a similar case earlier this summer, when Netflix blamed Verizon for slow streaming speeds. Although it is participating in the Internet day of protest, Netflix says it has resisted the idea of degrading its application.
"Too many of our subscribers have experienced such slowdowns because of purposeful congestion caused by Internet service providers," said Anne Marie Squeo, a Netflix spokeswoman. "Our net neutrality efforts are focused on eliminating that experience, not extending it."
Others, such as the Web hosting site NeoCities, has singled out the FCC for slower treatment. Visitors from FCC IP addresses are being slowed to dial-up speeds, while reddit users have been talking for months about replicating that effort on other sites — to give FCC officials a taste of what the redditors believe to be the agency's own medicine.
Would it really be possible for the entire Internet — or a substantial portion of it — to deliberately slow itself down? The hard part probably wouldn't be technical. Sites can restrict their own capacity to respond to requests by altering their configuration files, according to IT specialists.
"The folks running them know exactly how they could slow them down if they needed to," said David Belson, a senior director at the Web traffic firm Akamai. "To throw all of the work they have done to optimize site performance out the window and say, 'we're going to slow down the site' is more of a business or organizational issue."
Organizers say the symbolic approach that protesters initially envisioned, with the loading graphic that doesn't slow anything down, is still expected to convert a lot of people to action. Net neutrality has quickly become a household term this year. But actually messing with people's Internet speeds would likely provoke an even stronger response. It'll be interesting to see if more sites take that route.