Big Tech’s Fight for Net Neutrality Moves Behind the Scenes


You might not be hearing much from big tech on net neutrality lately. But the likes of Google and Facebook are still invested in the fight behind the scenes.

Last year’s “Day of Action” prompted Amazon, Google, Facebook, and many others to pen blog posts or host banners urging users to file comments in support of the Federal Communications Commission’s Obama-era net neutrality rules against blocking, throttling, or otherwise discriminating against lawful content. A similar “Red Alert” campaign earlier this month organized by net neutrality advocates to push Congress to save the Obama-era rules attracted far less public participation from the big names.

Google and Netflix tweeted links to a campaign by the Internet Association, the industry’s primary lobbying arm. Others, like Facebook, issued statements in support of the restoring the old rules, but didn’t place banners or run blog posts. “Facebook continues to support strong net neutrality protections that ensure the internet remains open for everyone,” the company said, specifying it supports the congressional effort to preserve net neutrality. “We also stand ready to work with any policy makers on a framework that will protect the open internet.”

The companies aren’t absent from the fight. Earlier this year, the Internet Association joined a legal battle to overturn the FCC’s decision to revoke the Obama-era rules, as did the industry group Incompas, which includes smaller telecommunications companies as well as tech companies including Facebook, Netflix, Microsoft, and Twitter.

“Their contribution is now purely litigation and very light on the political,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation legislative counsel Ernesto Falcon.

The FCC passed its net neutrality rules in January 2015. The now Republican-led FCC voted to jettison those rules last December. The Internet Association and Incompas argue that the December decision was illegal under a federal law barring regulatory agencies from making “arbitrary and capricious” decisions. Legal experts think they might have a case.

The tech industry isn’t the only player in the lawsuit, which was filed by 22 state attorneys general and joined by several consumer groups and companies. But a source familiar with the suit says the industry is channeling significant resources into the legal fight.

Still, some net neutrality advocates argue that the biggest players could be doing more. “They are not deploying their full arsenal of tactics,” says Matt Wood of the advocacy group Free Press. During the “Red Alert” campaign, tech companies like Etsy and Reddit placed banners and buttons on their sites alerting users to a Senate vote to preserve net neutrality, and encouraging them to contact their represenatives. The larger tech companies could have done the same and reached far more people.

Wood says the companies might not think the legislation had much chance to pass. Although it passed the Senate this month with all Senate Democrats and Independents plus three Republicans voting in favor, the legislation faces longer odds in the House, where Democrats will need to win over more than 20 Republicans. And if it passes the House, it will still need approval from the President.

The industry may also be picking its battles more selectively than in the past. Last year Axios reported that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and representatives from the Internet Association were warned by House Republican leaders ahead of the “Day of Action” protests that engaging in net neutrality activism would make it harder for Congress to work with the industry on other issues. With the tech industry under fire from both the right and the left, and Facebook airing apology commercials, net neutrality might not be a top priority, especially if the industry doesn’t expect to win a legislative battle.

Wood says tech companies may also be concerned that their participation could create an impression that the legislation only favors the tech industry, which could actually hurt the case for net neutrality. “We would love to have their help, but we don’t need them to win,” Wood said of big tech.

He points to support from small businesses. The Main Street Alliance, for example, endorsed legislation to preserve the Obama-era net neutrality rules, and more than 6,000 small businesses signed an open letter in support as well.

But the courts remain a major front in the battle to save net neutrality, and fighting that battle takes money. Big tech’s contribution there could prove crucial.


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