Sniffing the scent of free publicity, Google and Facebook steamroll into net neutrality protest

Didn't talk to organizers, don't have any plans yet

Fingers crossed

Hark, ye internet peasants. Google and Facebook today trumpeted that they will join the day of protest against efforts to kill off America's net neutrality rules.

The news was welcomed by Fight for the Future, the organization behind the protest planned for Wednesday, July 12. But it also noted pointedly that neither of the online giants had been in contact.

"We have not heard directly from either Facebook or Google, but we're glad to hear that these companies are listening to their employees and Internet users and will speak out for net neutrality with the rest of the Internet on July 12," Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer said in a statement. "We hope that they plan to do something meaningful."

Several big internet names have been notable for their absence from the list of companies planning to use their widespread reach to highlight the plan by Ajit Pai – the boss of America's comms regulator, the FCC – to scrap the Open Internet Order and replace it with... well, we don't know what yet.

When the campaign was formally announced, the biggest name of roughly 45 companies backing it was Amazon. Since then, nearly 150 other companies have come aboard, including big names like Netflix and Twitter.

But Google and Facebook have stubbornly failed to appear on the list, leading to repeated questioning from the press and employees over why, and whether they will join in the protest.

Uh, yeah, sure

On Thursday, Google broke its self-imposed silence with a spokesperson saying that it "will participate" and claiming that it has "always planned to be part of it," but the company has yet to announce any plans or even blog its support.

Likewise Facebook, which hasn't even supplied on-the-record support and has also not said what it plans to do.

That is in stark contrast to the other tech companies, many of whom have explicitly relayed their plans for next Wednesday. Vimeo, for example, will include a short 30-second ad in front of all its videos, warning about the risks of getting rid of the rules.

Mobile apps will push notifications to their users warning that "Big ISPs want the power to slow down our app" and directing people to an online petition. And participating websites will add one of a number of pop-up boxes warning of internet slowdowns, website blocks and possible charges for accessing the website if the plans move ahead. Each pop-up will also ask users to provide their personal details to send a letter to the FCC opposing its plans.

The campaign has also created "spinning wheel of death" avatars and is encouraging internet users to replace their Facebook and Twitter images with them.

Google and Facebook's half-hearted support is a source of frustration in the internet industry, with some suspecting that since both companies are big and rich enough to deal with the implications of net neutrality rules being struck down, they are balancing the political implications of actively opposing the FCC and the Republican Party with supporting smaller players on the internet.

Money talks

The truth is that Google and Facebook also stand to gain from a less open internet ecosystem that would make it much harder for the next Google or Facebook to gain traction. A similar conflict of interest has also struck Netflix, which can now afford to pay cable companies to get to their users (and does so), and stands to benefit from the barriers to entry that getting rid of the Open Internet Order will introduce.

Netflix insists that it will stand up for the little man and an open internet, but that situation almost certainly stems from the personal views of its top executives. When the company acts in its corporate interests, it takes a much less pro-net neutrality line.

If and when the FCC does scrap the rules, large companies will be under significant pressure from their shareholders to take a more pragmatic line and – as we have seen repeatedly in the past – ideology will give way to profit-making.

Although the day of protest is likely to result in a huge wave of criticism from ordinary internet users against the FCC, the sad truth is that the cable industry and FCC chair Pai have already prepared for it.

In several speeches, Pai has outlined his willingness to effectively ignore views he doesn't agree with, and Big Cable – with Pai's assistance – is clearly preparing its own mass-response in an effort to counteract the internet companies' push.

It is going to be a big tussle, with the Republican Party, Republican FCC commissioners and Big Cable on one side, and internet companies and Democrats on the other.

Where the issue lands will likely depend on how riled up internet users – every one of them a voter and a cable customer – become. And the biggest driver of internet users' opinion will be Google and Facebook.

In their hypocritical efforts to sit on the fence, Google and Facebook may end up being the deciding factor behind the push to get rid of net neutrality. ®

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