If it seems like the Internet is slower than usual today, do not adjust your WiFi settings. There is nothing wrong with your connection — at least, not yet.
The “loading” icons appearing today on popular websites such as Reddit and Netflix don't really mean those sites are slowing down. Instead, they are there as a symbol, foreshadowing a real threat that some of the Web's biggest names are warning will change the Internet as we know it. It's part of the Internet Slowdown, a campaign running today to raise awareness about a Federal Communications Commission plan that would effectively end net neutrality, the foundational Internet principle that dictates all traffic must be treated equally by service providers — whether it's from a blog, a start-up or an established Web giant such as Facebook.
The FCC plan would allow Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner to charge websites for the option of delivering content to customers more quickly, creating a tiered system of high-speed priority lanes for companies that pay for it, and slower service for everyone else. Led by online activist group Fight For the Future and backed by companies such as Kickstarter, Netflix and Reddit, the action is timed with the conclusion of the FCC's public comment period, encouraging Americans to speak out before the deadline on September 15.
The net neutrality movement has attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters since the FCC's rulemaking began earlier this year. The cause was notably catalyzed after a video of comedian John Oliver's late night call-to-arms went viral, driving so much traffic to the FCC that its website was intermittently taken offline. Nearly 500,000 comments on the proposal are currently posted to the site, although that number doesn't reflect all the comments the FCC has received via email, snail mail and telephone; the Commission said that it had received around 780,000 comments in mid-July, a number believed to have grown substantially since. An overwhelming majority of the public comments oppose the FCC's plan, and many demand that broadband Internet be re-classified as a public utility subject to similar regulations as telephones and electricity.
Many of the Slowdown campaign's most prominent supporters describe it as a do-or-die moment for American Internet start-ups, which would be disadvantaged when competing with established businesses that can afford to pay ISPs for faster speeds. Netflix, for example, was already slowed significantly while negotiating with Comcast, and only saw speeds increase after reluctantly agreeing to a paid prioritization deal. A start-up hoping to compete with Netflix might not be able to afford the toll, however, and would be forced to extract the added cost from the customer. “The FCC proposal threatens any business that relies on the Internet to reach consumers, stream video, process payments, advertise services or products, speak their minds, or do just about anything else,” wrote Chad Dickerson, the CEO of the online marketplace Etsy, in a recent op-ed for WIRED.
Other notable participants in today’s action include Foursquare, Vimeo and the blog-hosting platform Wordpress. More recently, the campaign attracted three of the biggest porn sites on the Internet after their spokeswoman was tagged in a discussion thread on Reddit.
Also notable is who hasn't joined. Missing from the alliance are Internet giants like Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon — companies that had previously joined nearly 150 other firms on a letter to the FCC [PDF]opposing the creation of fast and slow lanes. That letter said that such a tiered system “represents a grave threat to the Internet,” but stopped short of demanding that broadband Internet be reclassified as a utility.
With the FCC's comment period coming to a close, it's still unclear what kind of influence today's action will have on the deliberations. But as with SOPA, the draconian anti-piracy bill that was abandoned after enormous public outrage in 2012, the future of a tiered Internet will likely hinge at least partly on the response from the tech industry, and whether it can combat the intense lobbying efforts of the telecom companies and cable providers that stand to profit heavily from an unequal future.
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Update: Tumblr, which has signed on to today's Internet slowness action, has produced a little explainer in handy cheesy video form.