"If there were Internet slow lanes, you'd still be waiting."

That message, plus an ominous spinning dial, flashed across the homepages of dozens of prominent tech startups on Wednesday, including Etsy, Netflix, and Reddit.

It's part of a group action designed to raise the awareness of net neutrality among consumers and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler before the public comment period examining the matter expires on September 15. Net neutrality is a popular term used to describe the principle by which traffic on the Web flows indiscriminately, regardless of end user or content provider.

Earlier this year, the FCC proposed changing that rule to allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to prioritize traffic based on what consumers and businesses are willing to pay. The public outpouring in opposition to ending net neutrality has been one of the biggest demonstrations in the agency's history, with the FCC logging more than 1 million comments through its website this summer. Wheeler is expected to issue his final ruling on the matter by the end of the year.

For the last few months, tech startups of all stripes have voiced their fears that throwing out Net Neutrality could throttle innovation, giving large companies the upper hand.

"No one in the financial technology industry is taking this up and looking at the long term implications," says Jordan Lampe, director of communications for alternative payments provider Dwolla, based in Des Moines, which participated in the event today. Lampe leads Dwolla's outreach on Capitol Hill and the FCC. He also met with Wheeler as part of a tech startup contingent this summer. 

Like a lot of startups, Dwolla fears the pricing advantage that larger payments providers, such as Mastercard, Visa, and Paypal may obtain if they are allowed to purchase prioritized access with their ISPs. Such prioritization could also damage the application environment that developers are currently building around the Dwolla platform.

"More Internet-connected devices helps us distribute and build credibility and application development for the network," Lampe says, adding that slower speeds could damage that development, and Dwolla in turn.

The FCC is initiating its rule change in response to a legal challenge by telecommunications company Verizon to something called the Open Internet Order, which in 2010 established FCC rules around service transparency and which prohibited blocking or discrmination against traffic. In January, a federal appeals court sided with Verizon and largely threw out the order. The FCC's proposed new rules stem from that court decision. 

Protest in Action

Dwolla posted the Internet Slowdown widget, designed by battleforthenet.com, on its company blog today. The widget urges customers to call congressional leaders and the FCC, or to sign letters that the various companies have already penned to the FCC and others.

Similarly, microblogging and social networking site Tumblr, which was purchased by Yahoo in 2013 for more than $1 billion, posted a widget on its home page. It's visible when users sign into their accounts, a Tumblr representative said, and by mid-day, nearly 40,000 Tumblr members had made calls to members of the Senate including, Senator Angus King (D., Maine) who has been an active proponent of maintaining net neutrality.  

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"The response has been overwhelmingly positive," says Liba Rubenstein, Tumblr's director of social impact and public policy. Despite its ownership by the Internet search behemoth, Rubenstein says Tumblr, which has just 300 employees, operates much like a startup. What's more, Internet speed issues are of key importance to the millions of sites that use Tumblr as platform for their own businesses. 

"It's a slippery slope once you create multiple tiers on the Internet," Rubenstein says. "And Tumblr could not have existed in the first place without net neutrality."