My fondest memory from covering Occupy Wall Street was a group of pranksters called the Tax Dodgers who sang humorous songs about economic policy and pitched a baseball through a hula-hoop labeled “loophole.” They did not succeed in changing federal tax policy, prosecuting financial industry misconduct, or enacting student debt relief. But they provided a lighthearted boost for activists working on those and other causes. (And their jersey earned a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame museum.)
With zero chance of stopping the FCC’s upcoming vote to roll back net neutrality regulations, tech activists are encouraging some internet pranksterism to raise awareness, and raise spirits. Starting (officially) on Tuesday morning and running through the FCC’s vote on Thursday, people will be messing with their online presence in a campaign called #BreakTheInternet.
The organizer of this and other net neutrality protests, Fight for The Future, has provided a toolkit of suggestions and how-tos. Ideas include changing Facebook relationship status to “married to the Internet” and adding the job title: “Defending Net Neutrality” on LinkedIn. Another idea: Using Tweetdeck to schedule posts about net neutrality every 10 minutes for 48 hours. An online spreadsheet suggests tweets both serious and sarcastic.
If you search Twitter for #BreakTheInternet and scroll to before the protest was announced on December 5, you get very different topics: funny cat pictures, breakdancing videos, and a super-NSFW magazine cover of Nicki Minaj in, well, a ménage. It’s long been the hashtag for cool, funny, or salacious tidbits that grab an outsized portion of our overstretched multitasking attention. Now it’s calling for serious attention to protect free access to everything on the net—from serious to silly.
#BreakTheInternet is a lighthearted evolution of earlier online protests, like the September 10, 2014 “Internet Slowdown Day,” when websites displayed a fake “Loading…” message. It spoofed how ISPs might slow down access to sites they don’t like, such as competing video services, as the Democrat-controlled FCC was considering the strict net neutrality regulations it ultimately passed in 2015. (These are the same ones the Republican-controlled FCC will abolish on Thursday.)
If the Loading icon was humorous, it was certainly dark humor. Though even that was lighthearted compared to 2012, when activists protested U.S. antipiracy bills (SOPA and PIPA) that they would cause online censorship. Major sites, even Google, featured black rectangles covering much of their home page–a mockup of internet censorship.
This week’s protest has its serious side. Activists are encouraging people to contact Congress, in the hope that it can take action to at least postpone the FCC vote until irregularities, like potentially millions of fraudulent public comments, are resolved. It parallels other online efforts like petitions to Congress on Change.org (the leading one with well over a million votes) and on the White House’s Obama-era We The People site with over a quarter million names.
But there’s no realistic hope that a Republican-majority Senate and House will spring into action against a Republican-majority FCC. And corporate support is not what it used to be. Many major tech companies, like Google, have been quiet this time around. The usual suspects like Etsy, GitHub, Mozilla, and Reddit are still onboard, though.
Given the bleak outlook, #BreakTheInternet may be a bit of gallows humor to energize activists with laughter, as the Tax Dodgers did for Occupy. And with lawsuits inevitably to follow Thursday’s vote, net neutrality warriors will need a boost before the next battle starts.