There has been a lot written about net neutrality over the past year. And, as the FCC is close to making their final determination on this important topic, it has gotten a lot of attention over the past week. It’s a topic I think most internet savvy people are at least somewhat aware of, but I wonder if those of us who work on the web are aware enough. Hence, my writing this think piece.
First, a quick definition of net neutrality. From Wikipedia:
Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wuin 2003 as an extension of the longstanding concept of a common carrier.
In Plain English…
Right now, ISPs just deliver data to their subscribers. They don’t look at it, analyze it or interfere with it. If the current rules are significantly modified or go away, ISPs could start looking at the data and delivering different types of data differently. For example, making streaming video from sites like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Instant super slow – unless the content sites agree to pay the ISP to not throttle their data. To take it even further, ISPs could, theoretically, get involved in selling faster data streams to all kinds of businesses, not just media sites. Imagine if ISPs (mega corporations largely) started to offer tiered data flow. The web would become skewed toward the big brands, as they have the budgets to pay for this and most smaller companies just won’t.
What’s The Big Deal?
With this safeguard removed, we will very likely find ourselves in a space where only those who can afford to pay will be visible on the web. Consider this scenario – you’re working with a company that sells furniture on the web. They’re not a large company, but have found some success in the space. With net neutrality gone, ISPs could determine who’s site loads in a timely manner. If the big sites, like Target, Walmart and Amazon pay up and your client doesn’t, they could find that their site loads too slowly relative to the other ones to have a chance at generating sales. Even worse, in the mobile space, where expectations about load time are even shorter, if a big franchise company pays for faster data, it would give them a huge advantage over smaller, local companies.
The web is supposed to be a more level playing field, without these kinds of barriers to business and competition.
Also, in most markets, there are very few broadband providers, so even if consumers are unhappy with their current ISP’s new policies, they may have few or no alternatives available. Big companies also tend to follow each other’s leads. So, once one of the big guys starts doing this, you can expect all of the others to follow suit. Think of airlines and their checked baggage fees. Not so long ago that seemed like an outrageous idea that would never actually happen. Now, only Southwest bucks this trend.
Businesses of All Sizes Should Care About This
I know, it’s easy to have your or your clients’ eyes start to glaze over when this topic comes up. But this issue could have major implications for businesses of all sizes if the proposed rule changes are passed. And let’s not kid ourselves, if they are allowed to start doing this stuff, ISPs will do it. There is no way they will pass up this kind of opportunity to increase their bottom lines. It will be like Google running your internet access – decisions will be based on what is best for the companies’ bottom lines, not what is best for their customers. And, since most operate in at least quasi monopolies, (much like Google) your dissatisfaction, while noted, will make zero difference in their policies.
So, in addition to managing internet marketing strategies for our clients, be it PPC, SEO, social media or whatever else arises in the future, we could all have to start managing what will essentially amount to internet access media buys in our clients’ markets. Think about that for a second.
What Can You Do About It?
Talk to your clients and anyone else who’s living is in any way impacted by the internet. Encourage them to not only start paying attention to this important topic, but let their voice be heard by the FCC. They have not taken their final vote yet and are taking public comments on the topic.
The ACLU has a great primer and petition.
As always, we welcome your thoughts in the comments. Have you been paying attention to this? Are you concerned about it? We want to hear from you!