You’re probably used to pop-ups on websites begging you to sign-up for an email newsletter, enter a contest, or watch an ad. But tomorrow the web will be plastered in a different sort of pop-up as some the tech’s biggest companies fight to maintain a free and open internet.
Last May, the Federal Communications Commission began the process of dismantling the net neutrality rules it adopted in early 2015. Without these rules, internet service providers could be free to block you from viewing particular sites, throttle the speeds of video streaming services, or charge you extra to view particular content. The end of net neutrality could make it much harder for new companies to get a toe-hold in markets such as streaming media or video calling, or even stifle free speech online.
Tomorrow, sites across the web will place alerts on their pages encouraging people to send letters to the FCC asking the agency not to jettison net neutrality. Hundreds of companies and organizations plan to participate in this so-called “Day of Action,” from giants such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Netflix to Reddit, Etsy, PornHub, Spotify, and even some smaller internet service providers like Ting and Sonic.
The plan is reminiscent of a similar campaign in January 2012, when countless websites, including Google, Wikipedia, and WIRED, blacked out parts of their pages to raise awareness about a pair of draconian intellectual property reform bills known as SOPA and PIPA that Congress was debating at the time. The campaign worked. Voters flooded their representatives with emails, phone calls, and letters, and the two bills died an early death.
It was a crucial moment in the history of internet policy and proved that activists and web companies could mobilize the public to push back against harmful legislation, and now the organizers behind the Day of Action are hoping to repeat that success. But not every company is equally committed to the cause of net neutrality. Here’s where seven internet giants stand on the issue, and what a world with fast and slow lanes might mean for them.
Jeff Bezos’s everything store was the first web giant to lend its name to this week’s Day of Action when the campaign was announced last month. And though it hasn’t always been the most vocal supporter of net neutrality, it is part of the Internet Association, which has quietly lobbied in favor of keeping the current rules intact. It was also one of the 100 groups that signed on to an open letter to the FCC in 2014 calling for strong net neutrality rules.
In some ways, Amazon is an unlikely champion of net neutrality. Its e-commerce business is by far the biggest player in online shopping, and slightly slower download speeds aren’t likely to change that. But Amazon’s video streaming service is another story. It’s garnered some big awards, but according to comScore, it still trails Netflix in viewership. The end of net neutrality might not be a death blow to Amazon’s streaming media ambitions, but the retail giant clearly doesn’t want to deal with getting squeezed by the broadband industry at the same time it tries to claw marketshare away from Netflix.
And then there’s Amazon’s cloud computing service, which is the main reason the company has lately been in the black so often after years of running at a loss. What’s more, some of its services, such as CloudFront, compete directly with services sold by telcos. That means Amazon could end up having to pay its competitors to keep its services speedy, giving the telcos the chance to undercut Amazon if the company passes the new fees on to consumers. The end of net neutrality might not be enough to kill Amazon’s cloud, but it could whittle down its margins.
Apple has long been absent from the net neutrality debate. The company was not one of the 100 companies that signed the open letter supporting net neutrality in 2014, it’s not a member of the Internet Association, and it hasn’t announced any plans to participate in the day of action this week.
Historically Apple hasn’t exactly been a friend to net neutrality. In 2009, Apple was caught blocking voice calling from the Skype app on iPhones on AT&T’s network. AT&T and Apple eventually relented and allowed Skype calling after FCC pressure. In those early days, perhaps it made more sense for Apple to cozy up to carriers and vie for preferential treatment for its products. But as it expands into original streaming video content, it will compete more directly with traditional pay TV companies, and those same companies could try to get Apple to pay extra to deliver its streaming media to their internet customers. If that happens, Apple’s days on the sidelines could soon be over.
CEO Tim Cook did come out in favor for net neutrality during a shareholders meeting last February, saying that Apple believes all content should be treated the same way. “We stay out of politics but stay in policy,” Cook said during the meeting, according to 9to5Mac. “If Net Neutrality became a top thing, we would definitely engage in it.”
AT&T recently announced on its blog that it will join the Day of Action, with one major caveat: it doesn’t actually support the FCC’s current rules. The agency’s Open Internet Order reclassified broadband providers as Title II “common carriers,” subjecting those services to some of the same regulations that apply to traditional phone services. AT&T says it support net neutrality, but not Title II reclassification. The problem is that in 2014, a federal court ruled that in order for the FCC to enforce net neutrality, it would have to reclassify internet service providers. That means that if the FCC rolls back its Title II decision, the agency wouldn’t have any legal authority to stop companies from blocking or throttling content unless Congress steps in. Several broadband providers, including Comcast and Verizon, now say they support Congressional action. But given President Donald Trump’s antipathy towards net neutrality and the lack of apparent support in Congress, it’s hard to take the industry’s claims to support the open internet at face value.
Facebook has a complicated relationship to net neutrality. It will reportedly participate in the Day of Action campaign, and has lobbied in support of the FCC’s rules through its membership in the Internet Association. “We fully support net neutrality,” CEO Mark Zuckeberg wrote in a Facebook post in 2015. “We want to keep the internet open.”
However, the company’s Free Basics service, which offers free access to select websites and services, but not the entire internet, has been criticized by net neutrality advocates. The service was eventually banned in India, but is still available through carrier partnerships in several other countries. Free Basics is a form of what’s known as “zero rating,” which means it exempts certain content from standard carrier fees. As a result, sites or services that can be used for free end up gaining an edge over competitors that still cost money to access. Defenders of zero rating say these services make it easier for the poor to access digital services. But critics argue that zero rating creates winners and losers on the internet, which is a clear violation of the net neutrality ethos.
The FCC’s current rules don’t outright prohibit zero rating, so the company’s support for the rules doesn’t run counter to its own interests. The company has long obsessed with delivering its service as quickly as possible, and as the company expands further into streaming video, speed matters more than ever.
Of all the companies on this list, Google’s parent company Alphabet has the most motivation to oppose net neutrality. It owns the high-speed internet service Google Fiber and the wireless reseller Project-Fi, so it could, in theory, end up wanting to prioritize its own services on its own networks. And it’s hard to imagine a change in net neutrality policy shaking Google’s dominance in the online advertising sector. If anything, you might expect Google to want to use the end of net neutrality to shut rivals out of the market.
But even though it was slow to do so, Google has confirmed that it will participate in the Day of Action. And like many other companies, it supports net neutrality through its membership in the Internet Association. As the company evolves, net neutrality may become more important for its future ambitions.
Alphabet is scaling back Google Fiber as it searches for more cost effective ways to roll out high speed internet, while YouTube is becoming more central to Google’s future, having just launched a live streaming television service that competes directly with traditional pay TV providers. And one of Google’s top engineers has speculated that cloud computing could one day be more profitable to the company than ads. That means, much like Amazon, Google needs to protect its connection speeds from throttle-hungry broadband providers, at least until it can fulfill its dreams of becoming a nationwide broadband provider itself.
Microsoft has been quiet about net neutrality so far this year. It has lobbied in favor of the rules through the Internet Association, but hasn’t announced participation in the Day of Action. Although its traditional software business might not be particularly threatened by the loss of net neutrality, the company is shifting more of its business to the cloud. Having to pay extra to keep its web-based email service zippy and its cloud hosting customers happy would be bad for business.
Netflix led the fight for strong net neutrality rules in 2014, and will participate in the Day of Action this year. But it hasn’t been as active in the battle to save net neutrality as it has in the past.
In 2014, the company published a series of blog posts criticizing the broadband industry’s handling of esoteric but important contracts between internet companies, opposing Comcast’s failed acquisition of Time-Warner Cable, and advocating for strong net neutrality rules. CEO Reed Hastings even tackled the subject of net neutrality in a WIRED editorial. And Netflix was the banner participant in “Internet Slow Down Day” in 2014, another predecessor for this week’s campaign.
So far this year, it has yet to devote any articles on its company blog to the topic of net neutrality. Asked why the company was so quiet on the topic at conference last month, Hastings said that while Netflix still supports net neutrality through its membership in the Internet Association, it no longer has a “special vulnerability” to its loss.
This makes sense. The company is still growing even after a rate hike last year, and it’s reasonable to think viewers will keep coming back even if the company has to raise prices again if broadband providers end up charging them extra to reach viewers. There would be riots in the streets if the broadband industry did anything to outright torpedo Netflix’s business. But just because the end of net neutrality isn’t an “existential threat” to Netflix doesn’t mean the company won’t take a hit if the rules change.
The number of companies participating in the Day of Action is staggering. It reads like a who’s who of the internet. But AOL and Yahoo, which are undergoing a merger to become a new company called “Oath,” are notably absent. So is Tumblr, the influential Yahoo-owned social network that participated in 2014’s Internet Slow Down Day as well as the SOPA/PIPA protests. AOL and Yahoo—and by extension Tumblr—are both owned by Verizon, which has vocally opposed the FCC’s net neutrality rules (though it now claims to support net neutrality in general).
So not every internet company will be throwing its support behind net neutrality tomorrow. But it’s clear that those not owned by major telcos stand to lose out if net neutrality goes the way of the optical drive.
Update at 6:25pm ET on July 11, 2017: This story has been updated to include AT&T’s announcement that it will participate in the Day of Action.