Not Neutrality

Tumblr Led the Net-Neutrality Fight—Then Verizon Bought It.

Tumblr led tech companies to stop telecoms like Verizon from making the web slower for poorer users. Verizon then bought it, and internal pushback quelled its advocacy.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

In 2014, few tech companies did more to fight for net neutrality than Tumblr. The company spent much of the year publicly voicing its support for the issue while founder and CEO David Karp spoke passionately about the importance of the open web.

“I couldn’t have created Tumblr without net neutrality,” he wrote in an op-ed in Politico.

Three years and two corporate takeovers later, however, Tumblr has become a non-existent voice in the movement and popular Tumblrs are accusing the company of actively censoring posts and tags about net neutrality on the platform. They argue that Verizon, Tumblr’s new parent company, is intentionally hiding content from users.

The drama began when Tumblr user polygonfighter posted on Monday that net-neutrality content had “all of the sudden disappeared from my dash almost entirely overnight.”

This set off a chain of reblogs, Tumblr’s version of a share or retweet, where other users shared similar stories of being mysteriously automatically unsubscribed from the net-neutrality tag and seeing net-neutrality-related posts disappear from their dashboards.

Tumblr user eykonto posted that he was “automatically unfollowed” from the net-neutrality tag every time he tried to add. “I’ll follow the tag, come back 20 minutes later and for some reason have unfollowed the tag automatically,” he wrote. “I think they may be happening to a majority of people to silence the resistance.”

User polygonfighter reblogged the post several times claiming that he had experienced this phenomenon firsthand and that Tumblr was “actively trying to silence outrage” about net neutrality by “making us incapable of seeing coverage of events.”

People also took to Twitter to voice their concerns. “Just so you guys know. @tumblr has been actively trying to silence people that post or follow anything related to the #NetNeutrality tags on their website. If you follow related blogs/tags you will automatically unfollow them after a half-hour,” one user tweeted on Monday night.

These conspiracies spread like wildfire across the platform throughout Monday and Tuesday as users panicked over theoretical censorship. When The Daily Beast attempted to replicate the phenomenon Tuesday morning, however, everything seemed to be working as normal.

“We have been a vocal supporter of Net Neutrality, and the Title II legal framework, as one of the strongest safeguards of an open and free internet, which is incredibly important to drive innovation forward,” said Victoria McCullough, Tumblr’s social impact lead.

“Tumblr helped start the fire the first time around in 2014, and we have been encouraged to see a lot of other companies getting involved to ensure that traffic on the internet is delivered fairly without discrimination, paid prioritization or blocking.”

Although the auto-unsubscribe glitch may have been a hoax or an unintentional bug, Tumblr users are right that, compared to 2014, net neutrality has been glaringly absent from users dashboards.

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“The internet is at a crossroads,” Karp wrote in an open letter announcing on Monday that he was resigning from his position. And no one has felt this pivot more acutely than Karp.

Since the last net-neutrality battle, Tumblr has had a roller-coaster half-decade. After being initially sold to Yahoo for $1.1 million in 2013, the company was then acquired by Verizon this year in a nearly $4.5 billion deal that merged Yahoo and AOL into a new Verizon-owned company called Oath.

Verizon has become infamous for its efforts to dismantle the open web. The company spends millions in lobbying efforts and, in 2011, it sued the FCC to overturn net-neutrality rules. In April of this year, its current general counsel, Kathy Grillo, wrote an open letter voicing Verizon’s support in repealing the protections. Current Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai formerly worked for Verizon as its general counsel.

The fact that a company so vehemently opposed to net neutrality now owns the social-media platform that had most publicly supported it has left a bitter taste in several former Tumblr employees’ mouths.

With every acquisition, Tumblr hemorrhaged talent and struggled to acclimate to life inside a rotating list of corporate conglomerates and the Verizon acquisition only accelerated the exodus.

A steady stream of first-wave Tumblr employees have left the company over the past few years, culminating with the June departure of Katherine Barna, Tumblr’s former head of communications and one of its earliest employees.

But it was when Tumblr’s former in-house counsel Ari Shahdadi left in October 2015 for BuzzFeed that the company lost its most outspoken net-neutrality advocate.

Throughout 2014, Shahdadi worked tirelessly with Marvin Ammori, a lawyer and net-neutrality activist, to fight for a freely accessible and open web.

The two, along with Karp, encouraged other tech companies, including Meetup, Vimeo, Etsy, Kickstarter, and WordPress, to join Tumblr’s fight. They collectively arranged for a “day of action” where tech companies rallied behind the cause and encouraged their users to support net neutrality.

Shahdadi traveled to D.C. to meet with then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and representatives from other tech companies and worked with Karp and others at Tumblr to organize a massive campaign to educate Tumblr users on what was at stake. Karp even mentioned the issue to President Obama when they were seated next to each other at a charity dinner.

Though Shahdadi spearheaded the fight internally, many of Tumblr’s earlier employees also joined the cause. Peter Vidani, Tumblr’s former head of design, Tag Savage, Tumblr’s head of copy editing, Ken Little, who ran engineering, Barna, who oversaw communications, and Shahdadi’s deputy, Liba Rubenstein, all threw their support behind advocating for net neutrality.

Working together, the entire company mobilized and, according to Shahdadi, the fight for net neutrality became a true group effort.

“We had dozens of people helping with things like the education and call stuff,” he told The Daily Beast. “The whole company was supportive.”

Now, Shahdadi, Vidani, Savage, Little, Barna, and nearly all of Tumblr’s former senior managers have left. Tumblr completed another round of general layoffs in June.

These exits coupled with growing pushback from Tumblr’s new parent company, Verizon, have essentially stifled the company’s ability to throw its support behind this year’s net-neutrality battle, much less issue another call to arms, according to sources in the company and those who lobbied for its help in fighting for net neutrality.

One former Tumblr employee said that they believe Tumblr COO (and soon to be CEO) Jeff D’Onofrio has been too soft when it comes to negotiating with Tumblr’s parent companies.

Earlier this year, internet-freedom activists reportedly reached out to representatives from Tumblr and asked the company if it would rejoin the fight to protect net neutrality. They were rebuffed.

Around that time, Kaitlyn Tiffany at The Verge reported that Karp had also been discouraged from speaking publicly about net neutrality, and that other employees felt pressure to keep silent.

Today, as Pai ramps up efforts to repeal the government’s existing net-neutrality rules as soon as an FCC vote on Dec. 14, Tumblr HQ remains publicly agnostic. Certain communities of users have been vocal in their support for net neutrality, but the platform itself is devoid of any banners, petitions, pleas, or calls to action.

To some users, it feels like Tumblr and the former heroes of net neutrality have checked out.

“Ya know the people who own this website [Tumblr], think killing net neutrality is a good idea. So this will be my last post unless they decide to support net neutrality,” one user wrote. “I’ll miss tumblr.”

Other users have been reblogging the quote, “It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.”

Shahdadi himself is no longer directly involved in the fight. While he still supports the principles of net neutrality, he is no longer actively engaged in advocating for the cause.

“I don’t really worry about it. I think there are bigger structural issues to deal with. I’m glad we raised awareness so much that (during) this second round, people are freaking out,” he said.

“I am pretty detached from it given the country’s descent into nightmare.”

This story has been updated to include comment from Tumblr.