No, the internet isn't actually broken today. Those spinning wheels of death you may have seen on Netflix, Tumblr, Reddit, Mozilla, and hundreds of other sites are part of Internet Slowdown Day, an effort to show what might happen if the internet actually did get broken by the bureaucrats at the Federal Communication Commission. The FCC will soon vote on a proposal to essentially eliminate net neutrality, the policy that forces internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T to treat all internet traffic the same. Here are five things you should know about what's happening today:
The Participating websites aren't actually slower: Not even Netflix is crazy enough to make a political statement by throttling itself. The spinning page-load symbols on participating sites are just widgets (see below), which anyone can download here. Some activists are also replacing their social media profile pics with images like this:
In this sense, Internet Slowdown Day is very similar to the SOPA blackout of 2012, when people and major sites across the internet blackened their logos and profile pictures to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have given the federal government wide latitude to enforce copyright law. SOPA showed that when major internet companies team up with grassroots activists, politicians tend to listen.
The real story is who is not participating: Although Google claims to support net neutrality, it's conspicuously silent about Internet Slowdown Day. Last year, Wired's Ryan Singel noted that the terms of service for Google Fiber, the company's relatively new ISP division, included some of the same provisions that Google had long decried as hostile to an open internet. By prohibiting customers from attaching "servers" to its network, Google Fiber was contradicting the principle of treating all packets of information equally, prompting Singel to accuse the search giant of a "flip-flop" on net neutrality. It's not that simple, of course, but tech companies such as Google clearly have much less to gain from net neutrality now that they're multibillion-dollar behemoths. Even if they don't take on the role of actual ISPs, large tech firms can easily afford to pay cable companies for faster service, creating a competitive firewall between their services and those offered by leaner startups.
In america, every day is already an internet slowdown day: Pushing internet traffic into "slow" lanes might be more tolerable if those lanes were still really fast in absolute terms. Sadly, however, the United States ranks a pathetic 25th among nations for download speeds:
This show is bigger than the superbowl: The net neutrality debate has generated a record 1,477,301 public comments to the FCC, the commission said today. As Politico notes, that breaks the previous record of 1.4 million complaints generated by Janet Jackson's 2004 wardrobe malfunction. The number of comments to the FCC will likely continue to grow as Internet Slowdown Day encourages visitors to voice their objections.
the fcc is not your friend: There's no question that the FCC is facing a public backlash against its plan to gut net neutrality. The question is whether the outrage will be sufficient to change its course. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is a major Obama bundler and former head of two major industry groups that staunchly oppose net neutrality. He's likely to side with the cable industry unless essentially forced to do otherwise. All of which is to say that the bar is incredibly high for Internet Slowdown Day. Until "net neutrality" becomes a household term, don't count on Washington to care about it.