On Wednesday, many popular websites greeted users with one of the most dreaded symbols on the Internet: the so-called "spinning wheel of death."
But these users did not have slow Internet connections. Rather, they were the recipients of a PR campaign called Internet Slowdown Day that was designed to show support for net neutrality. The campaign consists of 33 companies including Netflix, Cisco, IBM, along with Internet activists, lawmakers, and citizens.
Users signing into the popular video-streaming site Netflix, for example, saw a black rectangular box in the lower-right corner. It featured a spinning wheel and told users that if the Internet was divided into "fast" and "slow" lanes – a major fear for net neutrality supporters – they'd still be waiting for the site to load. Upon clicking the button, users were redirected to the homepage for Battle for the Net, a strong advocate for net neutrality.
At issue is legislation being considered by the Federal Communications Commission that, if passed, would let Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable charge websites to deliver content at faster speeds. That could prove disastrous, detractors say, for smaller websites that would not be able to pay the fees.
In essence, critics note, it could create an Internet fast lane for companies that could pay for fast service and a slow lane for everyone else.
For their part, ISPs like Verizon and Comcast argue that major streaming services like Netflix and YouTube take up more than a third of North America's Internet bandwidth during the busiest times of the day. Therefore, ISPs say these companies should pay because of the strain such heavy traffic places on networks.
But a company like Netflix, which relies on fast Internet so users can stream videos easily, criticizes legislation that could interfere with its service.
"Big ISPs want the power to slow (and break!) sites like ours," reads a statement on the website for Internet Slowdown Day. It encourages people to sign a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler urging him to protect the Internet from "erecting toll booths or designating fast lanes on the information superhighway" that "would stifle free speech, limit consumer choice, and thwart innovation."
The letter further notes that the proposed rules would be a startling break from the way the Internet has existed until now – a kind of open free-for-all where each site could be more or less an equal player regardless of the size of its budget.
Now, that could change.
Though the concept of net neutrality has been around for years, it gained widespread attention in January when a federal appeals court struck down for the second time the FCC's rules that attempted to protect net neutrality. The court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate broadband companies. After that ruling, the FCC in April switched positions and said it would, in fact, support fast lanes that let companies pay ISPs for faster service.
That reversal enraged Internet activists and companies that consider an open Internet not just important for business, but symbolic for freedom of expression and crucial to foster a culture of innovation.
"If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies' content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome," Google wrote in an e-mail showing support for net neutrality.
Many net neutrality advocates instead call for Internet providers to be regulated more like utilities. This would mean regulating Internet providers the same way the FCC oversees phone companies. Importantly, it could mean the FCC will take a hands-off approach in deciding which rules to implement, appealing to net neutrality supporters who want as little federal regulation as possible.
This debate played out publicly earlier this year when Netflix showed messages on its site that said any long loading periods users experienced were due to slow Verizon network connections. Though Netflix stopped this practice after Verizon issued a cease-and-desist letter, the conflict painted a powerful picture: in the controversy between Internet content providers and service providers, the users are the ones who get caught in the crosshairs.
Of course, should fast lanes become a reality, many of the big Internet players vocally leading the charge to defend net neutrality are also the ones best positioned to pay ISPs. Netflix makes $71 million a year, while Twitter makes $312 million, according to The Atlantic.
Moreover, fast lanes essentially exist already. A June article in Wired points out that Internet giants like Google, Facebook, and Netflix have direct connections to ISPs and "run dedicated computer servers deep inside these ISPs."
Following the FCC's May approval of Mr. Wheeler's proposed rules for net neutrality, the final round of comments for the FCC's proposal is Sept. 15. A hearing on net neutrality will be held by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy on Sept. 17.