Silicon Valley’s giant companies have been quiet lately on the question of whether the government should protect an open internet, which they’ve previously argued is vital to innovation. Don’t count on them staking out a stronger position even though President Barack Obama has stepped into the fray, and Washington looks to be gearing up for an epic battle over the rules that govern the internet.
On Monday, Obama offered his support for a strict set of rules that, among other proscriptions, would prohibit broadband carriers from blocking online content, and would restrict them from giving priority access over their lines to companies that pay an extra fee.
In another era, the White House’s position might have elicited squeals of joy from the technology giants, which have long maintained that the future of innovation online depends on such strict net neutrality rules. But Google, which was once the industry’s most ardent supporter of net neutrality, and Facebook, which could mobilise millions of supporters through its service, both declined to comment on Obama’s position.
Instead, they joined a supportive statement put out by the Internet Association, a trade group that represents a coalition of technology companies, including Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Twitter and PayPal.
The muted response was not surprising. Since January, when a federal appeals court threw out the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on net neutrality, broadband companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have mounted a full-court public and legislative fight against any new round of regulations that would curb how they manage their networks.
Large internet businesses have written a few letters to regulators in support of the issue and have participated in the back-channel lobbying effort, but they have not joined online protests, or otherwise moved to mobilise their users in favour of new rules.
Why not? They may be too big to bother with an issue that primarily affects the smallest internet companies. And that is a shame.
The White House’s proposal is seen as the beginning of what could be a heated battle on net neutrality. Supporters are gearing up for a fierce fight at the FCC and in the incoming majority-Republican Congress.
Net neutrality rules would keep broadband lines neutral of the internet providers’ business interests. Say, for instance, you get high-speed internet service from Comcast. Without strong rules, advocates say, Comcast could favour certain websites or videos on the lines coming into your home – perhaps those from TV networks it owns, or from outside companies from which it has exacted a fee for access to a “fast lane” on the internet.
If that were to happen, proponents of the rules say, it’s obvious which companies would suffer most: the internet’s newest and least powerful businesses. The giants, meanwhile, would escape relatively unscathed.
For much of the year, that dynamic has been playing out in public. Last September, web companies in favour of net neutrality supported an effort to slow down many well-known sites in order to demonstrate how web users would be harmed if net neutrality rules were not enacted.
But the internet’s biggest names – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple – sat out the protest. If you pulled up Google’s search results or Facebook’s News Feed on Internet Slowdown Day, you would not have noticed anything amiss. Still, the campaign has been remarkably effective despite the absence of web giants.
“The fact that not every company could hide behind Google made some companies more willing to speak out,” said Craig Aaron, the president of the advocacy group Free Press. “In 2010, when Google was more out front on this, a lot of companies were willing to let them take the shots.”
Pro-neutrality organisers managed to whip up a record-setting 3.7 million public comments to the FCC regarding the issue, most of them in favour of a strong proposal. They see Obama’s statement as a direct response to the outpouring of public support.
In some ways, the absence of large tech companies allowed advocates to paint the issue as something of a David versus Goliath battle. Here the broadband behemoths were not pitted against faceless Silicon Valley giants, but against little guys like Etsy and Kickstarter, as well as against their fiercely loyal users.
“Part of why we’re so active in this issue is that we are serving as a voice box for what our users want,” said Ari Shahdadi, the general counsel of Tumblr, the blogging service that was bought last year by Yahoo! but still operates like a freewheeling start-up. “We’re able to give voice to these concerns in a way that larger tech companies are not able to.”
Consider, for instance, the pro-neutrality argument offered by Etsy, which is a marketplace for handmade items. Most Etsy sellers are women who have set up shop in their homes. “The internet has allowed them to compete with big brands in the global marketplace, and we felt that was under threat,” said Althea Erickson, the company’s public policy director.
Erickson pointed out that Etsy makes low margins, taking just 3.5 per cent of every transaction. The company would not have been able to pay for priority access if broadband companies ever created a fast lane online. “And we know that speed really matters,” she said. “Delays of even fractions of a second result in dropped revenue for our users.”
In portraying the issue as a problem for their users, the smaller companies highlight the most important constituency for network neutrality: people like Etsy sellers, Tumblr bloggers and Kickstarter entrepreneurs, people who use the internet to circumvent the world’s entrenched power structures.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and other large companies – with their tens of millions of American users – could mount similar campaigns on a wider scale.
They could, for example, explain to users how we’d all have lost out if broadband companies were free to block messaging apps like WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook, because it posed a threat to carriers’ exorbitant SMS-texting prices. Or how fledgling comedians on YouTube might never have been discovered if the video site, now owned by Google, had been required to pay an access fee in its earliest days.
“Their users really, really care about this issue,” said Aaron, of Free Press. “I hope they’d recognise that, as the smaller companies have recognised that. We’d welcome their support.”
© 2014 The New York Times