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Can the Internet Save Itself?

Protesters march past the FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C., before a commission meeting on net neutrality on May 15, 2014.  © Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Today is the day the internet could determine its future. Because today, September 10, is the day digital-rights groups, internet companies, and activists unite to protect net neutrality by demonstrating what the web would look like if broadband providers favored some kinds of content over others.

Net neutrality is the principle that ensures all internet content is treated the same. This means internet service providers (ISPs)—companies like Comcast or Verizon—must treat all data on the internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, or mode of communication.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down net neutrality rules earlier this year. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler took the opportunity to propose rules that would create an internet fast lane—allowing ISPs to charge some companies higher fees for faster access to consumers, effectively slowing all other internet traffic. Creating such a tiered system is the opposite of net neutrality, which is favored by the vast majority of internet users.

Advocates have been pressuring the FCC to abandon Chairman Wheeler’s flawed proposal for months, and their efforts are bearing fruit. The FCC has to date received over one million comments on the open internet, the vast majority of them in support of strong net neutrality rules. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver lampooned Chairman Wheeler’s proposal, a segment that generated so much interest in the issue that the FCC’s web site crashed twice.

And Washington, D.C., is beginning to sit up and take note. Over 60 members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, have spoken out in support of strong net neutrality rules. President Obama has also addressed the issue, explaining that “the position of my administration … is you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the internet is for various users.”

Advocates are turning up the heat with the September 10 online protest. They are staging an “internet slowdown,” a symbolic protest where participating web sites will display an “infinitely loading site icon,” to demonstrate what the web would look like without net neutrality. The loading icon won’t actually slow internet access, but it will include a prompt to contact Congress and the FCC in support of net neutrality.

The leading organizers—groups like Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, and Free Press—are veterans of the successful online action to stop SOPA (the Stop Online Privacy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act), legislation that would have allowed internet censorship.

The open internet is an essential condition of full and equal participation in the public sphere. It facilitates information flow, transforming institutions and communities themselves along the way. That is why organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Color of Change will be participating in the protest, and it is why major internet companies like Etsy and Netflix have decided to join the fight.

September 10 represents a huge opportunity for advocates of net neutrality that promises to bring new energy and attention to the issue. It is also the result of many years of work by a dedicated and diverse field that is collaborating smartly to realize this common, critical goal.

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