Commentary | Go slow

On net neutrality and labour strategies

On September 10, several organizations, including the Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism, the progressive Demand Progress campaign group, and internet and tech sector lobby groups Fight for the Future and Engine, joined to promote ‘net neutrality’ via an online protest against proposed rules from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent U.S. government agency. The new rules would establish a two-tiered system for broadband internet in which service providers would be allowed to charge additional fees to sites for access to a ‘fast lane’ of broadband service. Those unwilling or unable to pay the extra fees would be relegated to a ‘slow lane’. The protests in favour of net neutrality though were mere tokenism – real resistance would have involved taking concrete action.

In principle, all broadband users have equal connection speeds, but practices such as selective throttling (artificial connection speed slowdown) and IP blocking (which prevents access to certain websites) have been used by large providers such as Telus, AT&T, and others to hinder virtual private networks (VPNs), online voice services such as Skype, file sharing, and to block access to websites such as those created by striking employees (as was done by Telus in 2005 to a Telecommunications Workers Union site).

The symbolic protest endorsed by these campaign groups involved placing a ‘loading’ icon on a variety of websites. Tumblr, Grooveshark, Reddit, Netflix and Vimeo all took part in the protest, as well as other media-heavy sites that would be forced to pay for a faster connection. The icon even showed sporadically on the Media@McGill site.

The protests in favour of net neutrality were mere tokenism – real resistance would have involved taking concrete action.

The action was labelled a ‘slowdown’ to highlight the consequences of the proposed FCC rules, but the organizers were quick to reassure users that no actual slowing of services would occur. A much more impactful and significant action would have been to actually slow internet traffic to demonstrate the effects of the proposed rules. What’s more, an actual slowdown would have drawn on successful labour tactics. The net neutrality protest merely appropriated the language of labour organizing.

Workers undertake ‘go slow’ actions, or slowdowns, to put pressure on employers without resorting to strike action. As a form of direct action, they can be undertaken for a variety of reasons – a strike might be illegal, impractical, or too expensive – and can be extremely effective. If inexperienced strike-breakers are brought in to force striking workers back to their jobs, for example, the experienced workers can go at the pace and skill used by the strike-breakers, resulting in an obstruction of production.

A similar strategy is work-to-rule, in which workers follow their duties to the letter, ignoring all the small shortcuts that typically smooth the functioning of a workplace. These actions inconvenience the employer by causing economic damage, but they also inconvenience any clients and customers. A road crew that deliberately slows down will also slow traffic, sending the message that those who wish for a smooth morning commute should support the crew’s demands.

An actual slowdown would have drawn on successful labour tactics. The net neutrality protest merely appropriated the language of labour organizing.

However, sabotage is not a tool limited to workers. Despite the negative attention given to worker actions that inconvenience employers and clients, the same tactics are employed by those who denounce their use; this is because these tactics are effective. Employer and business sabotage also inhibits production to achieve specific ends.

For instance, the deliberate destruction of crops, or milk quotas, destroys production so that the price of goods become artificially inflated. Closer to home, McGill’s refusal of provincial conditional grants (Quebec promised $32 million in grants if McGill would reduce its deficit by $9.6 million), and the transfer of funds from the university’s operating budget to its capital budget, represent a form of sabotage. The intent was to force reorganization of the university structure and increase tuition fees by creating a condition of scarcity on campus.

Somewhat hypocritically, McGill won several injunctions against MUNACA, the university’s labour union for non-academic support staff, during their strike against pension cuts. The University forced picketing workers to keep to small, distant groups on the grounds that standard pickets were too noisy and inconvenienced students and staff. So companies, governments, and institutions are only averse to sabotage that harms their interests, not to the tactic itself.

The proposed changes to FCC rules can be seen in a similar light, as they represent artificial limits on broadband speed intended to force users to pay inflated prices for faster access. However, the situation with net neutrality is not precisely analogous to those of workers facing pressure from their employer. The powerful organizations and websites backing net neutrality are not employed by the businesses lobbying for increased control of digital infrastructure, and both ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ net neutrality corporations are represented by well-funded lobby groups.

It’s much harder to ignore your Netflix being interrupted by constant buffering than it is to ignore a loading icon.

However, ‘pro’ corporations depend entirely on the broadband access controlled by the ‘anti’ corporations, and the new FCC rules would have a major impact on their ability to conduct business. They would also impact individual internet users by forcing a reduction in high-bandwidth media use, or would accept web plans even less competitive than those in North America today.

The rules also open the door to arbitrary access to certain websites at any speed, potentially allowing large telecommunications companies to extort increased payments from economic or political competitors. If proponents of net neutrality are serious about their campaign, they should drop lacklustre awareness raising and adopt the proven tactics of direct action. They should slow down their sites.

Certainly their clients would complain about the slowdowns, but such complaints would provide a means to explain the nature of the new FCC rules in detail, and to point out how much worse the situation would be under those rules. It would provoke more of a response, and possibly even interfere with the business activities of those involved with the telecommunications lobby and the FCC, potentially forcing them to revisit their own goals. It’s much harder to ignore your Netflix being interrupted by constant buffering than it is to ignore a loading icon.


Benjamin Elgie is a PhD candidate in Neuroscience. To contact him, please email benjamin.elgie@mail.mcgill.ca.


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