Why Your Favorite Websites Are Covered in ‘Loading’ Icons
If you spent some time checking your favorite websites on September 10, you probably noticed that a variety of major websites are participating in the “Internet Slowdown” protest to raise awareness and support for net neutrality. The hallmark of protest participants? The placement of spinning “loading” icons across websites to get visitors to think about what the Internet might look like if Internet service providers were allowed to create fast and slow lanes to prioritize Internet traffic. The website for the protest, organized by an activist group called “Battle for the Net,” explains the protest:
“Cable companies want to slow down (and break!) your favorite sites, for profit. To fight back, let’s cover the web with symbolic ‘loading’ icons, to remind everyone what an Internet without net neutrality would look like, and drive record numbers of emails and calls to lawmakers.”
Sites aren’t actually slowing down services, just placing the loading icons on their pages to simulate a slowdown, but many — WordPress, Mozilla, Reddit, Netflix, Upworthy, Vimeo, Google, Tumblr, and Kickstarter — are just a few participants displaying some kind of message featuring the iconic, spinning “loading” symbol. Perhaps most importantly, these sites are pushing their users and visitors to complain to the Federal Communications Commission, and to Congress.
What exactly should they be complaining about? Here’s the rundown on how the protest figures into a bigger debate about net neutrality, what the Internet Slowdown is really about, and why so many of your favorite websites have chosen to display the “spinning wheel of death” for a day.
What is net neutrality?
In a nutshell, net neutrality is the idea that all of the information accessible on the Internet should be treated equally by Internet service providers, which should enable equal access to all content and all websites. But it’s a concept with a complex history, which in a way began in 2003, when the phrase was coined by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who used the term in a law review article on the relevant telecommunications policies and operators’ record of “broadband discrimination.” But even before that, something incredibly important happened: in 2002, the FCC issued a ruling that classified Internet service providers as “information services,” meaning that it was no longer under FCC regulation as it was when it was classified as “common carriers,” which are considered to be providing a public service.
So on to 2004 when FCC Chair Michael Powell called for four Internet freedoms encompassing net neutrality after debates over the potential for Internet service providers to selectively slow Internet traffic. In 2005, the FCC released a policy statement (PDF) reflecting these freedoms, but unbacked by any power to regulate them. Later in 2005, AT&T chief executive Edward Whitacre said to Businessweek of the threat posed to traditional telecom companies by young Internet companies: “They don’t have any fiber out there. They don’t have any wires. They don’t have anything. They use my lines for free — and that’s bull. For a Google or a Yahoo! or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!”
In 2007, Comcast subscribers began to notice slowed connections when using BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services, which Comcast defends as its managing of network traffic during hours of heavy use. In 2008, FCC Chair Kevin Martin says that the slowing of peer-to-peer traffic is more widespread than disclosed, and Comcast and Cox Communications were found to slow BitTorrent traffic at all times of the day. Later in 2008, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop its interference with peer-to-peer network traffic. Comcast appealed the order, arguing that its network management practices didn’t break any hard rules put in place by the FCC.
In 2010, the FCC approved net neutrality regulations that some have said were weak and full of loopholes. In 2011, Verizon formally challenged the FCC rules on the grounds that the FCC didn’t have the right to enforce them. Also in 2011, activist group Free Press filed a lawsuit charging that the FCC rules were too weak. In 2012, AT&T reversed its policy of disallowing iPhone and iPad owners to use Apple’s FaceTime unless they bought the most expensive data plan.
In 2013, the D.C. Circuit court heard arguments on Verizon’s challenging of the FCC rules, and it became clear that the rules were keeping ISPs from charging websites to reach each provider’s customers. In January 2014, the court overturned the FCC’s Open Internet rules, announcing that if the FCC wants to treat Internet access like a telecommunications service, it cannot classify Internet access as an information service.
In February, the FCC decided to explore its ability to create net neutrality rules, and in April, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FCC was planning to propose new rules that would endorse preferential treatment for some traffic — fast and slow lanes for Internet traffic. In May, the FCC released a new proposal that would still allow fast and slow lanes, but included questions about reclassification. In June, the FCC opened an investigation into interconnection and peering agreements between Internet providers and websites.
What are net neutrality proponents fighting for?
Net neutrality is a major issue with a complex history, and a concept that’s prompted so many activists, web companies, and even general consumers to get behind September 10′s Internet Slowdown protest, so it’s worth asking what exactly proponents of net neutrality are looking to accomplish. While the FCC has struggled to redefine net neutrality after its rules were struck down, Internet companies, activist groups, and many Internet users are clear on one point: they don’t want the FCC to allow cable and broadband carriers to differentiate between proverbial fast lanes and slow lanes for Internet traffic.
A coalition of more than 100 tech companies led Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Netflix has lobbied the FCC to preserve net neutrality and the free and open Internet. While the letter didn’t propose any specific actions, it came amid a wide public outcry over the FCC’s handling of net neutrality. Netflix issued its own document explaining how fast lanes had already damaged its business and hurt the quality of the service it could provide to customers.
In July, more than a million people left comments on the FCC’s website, most in support of an open Internet and the FCC’s potential enforcement of net neutrality. Some people, including some members of Congress, support the idea of reclassifying Internet access as a utility so that ISPs cannot discriminate against content. Activist groups, including the Battle for the Net group behind the Internet Slowdown protest, say that any action other than a move by the FCC to reclassify Internet access as a common carrier would constitute “an attack on our rights to connect and communicate.”
What are they fighting against?
In short, companies and activists are fighting against cable and broadband carriers that would look to profit by charging a premium for higher speeds for a specific website, or otherwise use its power to regulate Internet traffic by slowing down or blocking websites, or making it easier for Internet users to view specific providers’ content.
The idea of the Internet Slowdown is that the creation of fast lanes and slow lanes would result in a divide between the large corporations that would be able to pay for higher speeds, and everyone else, who would have to settle for slow download speeds. The placement of loading icons across popular websites is meant to simulate what it would be like if Internet service providers slowed down traffic to sites that couldn’t afford to pay for higher speeds for their users. Those in favor of net neutrality don’t want cable companies to be able to control how anyone accesses content or what content they access.
What are Internet companies doing?
One of the many websites participating in the protest is Netflix — everyone’s favorite destination for streaming videos and movies — but Netflix’s own recent deals with ISPs demonstrate how complex the issue is for web companies that want to provide the best service to current and potential customers.
In April, Time reported that Netflix had reached a paid-peering-interconnection agreement with Verizon. The deal, which established a direct connection between the companies to improve the service Netflix provides to its users, came after Netflix signed a similar deal with Comcast. After signing the deal with Comcast, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings called on the FCC to include paid-peering agreements in its new net neutrality rules, but Hastings still agreed to pay what he referred to as an “arbitrary tax,” as Time had reported a few days earlier, not only to Comcast, but also to Verizon, Time Warner Cable, and AT&T. As Time pointed out, these paid-peering agreements, which occur at interconnection points around the U.S., aren’t considered to be a net neutrality issue by the FCC, and some companies, like Netflix, aren’t abstaining from signing them despite interests in net neutrality.
Quartz recently reported that Netflix’s download speeds went up dramatically for users on AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon after Netflix signed agreements with those ISPs and paid for the improved speeds. While each of these deals was signed several months ago, they seem to have gone into effect in August when the speeds increased dramatically.
On a recent post on its blog, Netflix briefly explained that the increases were directly linked to the deals it signed with ISPs, and detailed exactly how much speeds improved:
“In the U.S., interconnection agreements with AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon resulted in significant increases in Internet speeds for all three providers in August. AT&T U-Verse led the way, with its speed jumping more than one Megabit per second (Mbps) to 2.61 from 1.44 over last month and rising seven spots in the U.S. speed index to No. 7. Verizon FiOS speeds increased to 2.41 Mbps from 1.61, and Time Warner Cable rose to 2.59 this month from 2.16 in July. These dramatic increases pushed the U.S. average speed to 2.57 in August, now ranking 11th among the countries we track — ahead of Brazil and Chile.”
Netflix has argued that such deals shouldn’t be allowed (in the long-term), but signed them with Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and Verizon to benefit subscribers in the short-term. While Netflix’s blog post didn’t go into the ethics of what the company thinks it and others like it should and shouldn’t do as the FCC weighs how the Internet should be regulated, these interconnection agreements have and will come under scrutiny both from lawmakers and from consumers.
As web companies and participants in the Internet Slowdown protest cite “Team Cable” as the enemy, they are pushing to place the issue of net neutrality very much in the public view — five days before the FCC closes its second round of comments on the issue. While the debate flies under the radar of many consumers and Internet users, the protest is a move to make more people aware of the issue, and to call more to action. The upcoming clash between “Team Internet” and “Team Cable” is as much about ethical values as it as about how people envision for the future of the Internet, and who they think should have the power to shape it.