There has been a lot of buzz about the term net neutrality in the news, on social media, and around the office lately. The FCC is preparing to end net neutrality on December 14th, 2017, and it’s causing a major stir for Internet users. From activist groups encouraging people to call congress, to headlines exclaiming that the Internet will be dead if the law passes. There is a lot to sift through to really understand what the stakes are and our goal is to make sense of net neutrality and explain how it can affect small business owners like us.
What Is Net Neutrality?
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Stated simply, net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner) need to treat all data on the Internet the same. Regardless of how you connect to the internet, your provider isn’t allowed to prioritize certain types of content, websites, or online services for you. This also means they can’t decide to limit or restrict certain types of content.
To give you an example, let’s say your ISP is Comcast. And lets say they also has their own on-demand video streaming service. They would much rather you use theirs instead of Hulu or Netflix, so they could put the brakes on how much Netflix you could watch (or block it entirely) to try to encourage you to use their service by making it work better. Since most Americans have very limited options, or no options, to choosing an internet service provider, this could leaves us at the ISP's mercy when it comes to what content we can consume.
A lot of people are using similar examples like this to explain net neutrality, but as much as it would be undesirable for your favorite video streaming service to become harder to access, life goes on, right? There is a whole other side to consider...
The Internet Isn’t Just About Consuming Content for Entertainment
This Netflix example is just scratching the surface. The same problem could happen more frequently at smaller scales. It’s not just entertainment and media that could get prioritized, but any and all web content. Social media, search engines, ecommerce and banking, and all small businesses who rely on their online presence could eventually see an effect from this.
If your business relies on online traffic to generate leads, abandoning net neutrality means that your internet service provider could make it harder or impossible for some customers to get to your website. Your ISP could prioritize and otherwise interfere with traffic simply because they have partnerships or get paid by businesses who compete with you. This may sound a little extreme, but it has already happened:
Real World Examples of What Net Neutrality Protects Us From
In 2010, DSL provider Windstream Communications admitted to hijacking search queries made using the Google toolbar within Firefox. Users thought they were searching on Google, but instead were delivered results through Windstream’s own search portal.
We’ve also seen cases where service providers were blocking other services on their network to attempt to get users to use their own:
Between 2011 and 2014, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon blocked Google Wallet, a mobile payment system, which competed with Isis, a competing mobile payment system that the three carriers each had a stake in developing.
AT&T Tried to Disable Facetime
Over the last decade or so, other cases have come up where ISPs had blocked various Voice over IP (VoIP) services, including Skype, Google Voice, and Vonage. The most notorious case was in 2012, where AT&T announced that it would disable FaceTime, a video messaging app on iPhones, unless subscribers paid additional fees.
While many of these earlier cases happened before net neutrality rules were officially in place, net neutrality enforces ISPs to keep the Internet open and transparent. The net neutrality rules were a result of these cases.
The Argument Against Net Neutrality
Myth: Net Neutrality Hurts Small Businesses
Although the argument for net neutrality is pretty simple--keep the Internet open, the argument against it is a little more complex. FCC chairman Ajit Pai (who formerly worked for Verizon) claims the rules are “heavy handed” and “all about politics.” His argument states that small internet providers were hurt by regulations. Net neutrality does prevent Internet service providers from charging more or less for different tiers of internet, capitalizing on advertising revenue and partnerships by redirecting traffic, and throttling competing services, but it also prevents smaller businesses from being excluded from a fair, open online ecosystem.
Myth: Net Neutrality is the Government Regulating the Internet
Another argument against net neutrality is that regulation always gets in the way of progress. However, the net neutrality rules aren’t crafted to regulate the Internet and how consumers use it, instead it regulates how it is delivered and how the businesses that deliver it can manipulate it. Imagine UPS prioritizing your deliveries based on the brands you buy or the stores you buy from.
You might then make decisions on what to buy and where to buy from if you knew you could get it faster. Next, imagine ordering a Samsung phone, but UPS has a partnership with Apple so getting the Samsung takes weeks but you could have an iPhone overnight. It sounds silly when put that way, but this is exactly what we’re fighting to prevent.
Myth: Tiered, Lower Cost Internet Will Benefit Low-Income Households
One of the strongest arguments against net neutrality is that enabling ISP's to create tiered Internet packages will allow more users to get access to the Internet. This sounds like a very strong point--we want to give poorer families the same opportunities and resources.
The idea of an ISP coming out with a cheap, barebones broadband service designed for households who simply can’t afford or struggle to afford current plans tugs at the emotions. However, limiting the open Internet can lead to limitations of the value of the Internet itself. If lower-income households were given access to an Internet without the same perks and resources, they still miss out. These families will inevitably choose Internet packages that limit the experience, and thus limit the amount of opportunity both economically and educationally they could have otherwise.
Children growing up with a limited, restricted Internet might not be able to watch tutorials on YouTube, take free online courses for programming, or gain the skills to use the Internet to reach a wider audience through marketing and social media. They won’t even know the opportunities are there because the only Internet they know is the restricted, limited tier.
There are long-term ramifications to this that we simply can’t predict, but it’s clear that there is more to gain from an open Internet.
Abandoning Net Neutrality Stonewalls Content Creators and Small Business
Let’s go back to how abandoning net neutrality affects business owners. In the example above, where Internet Service Providers could start offering a cheaper, limited Internet tier, this potentially limits small business. If a percentage of your audience dials back their Internet tier to a plan that prioritizes the ISP’s partners and agenda, this could make it harder or impossible for those users to find and engage with you.
The money that you put into online marketing won’t go as far, or even have an effect on these users. Smaller businesses and content creators might not have the resources to get past all of the barriers when reaching deals with carriers to have a fair shot at getting in front of customers.
As business owners, we already pay for full access to the Internet. We likely pay other companies for services beyond just Internet access - mobile data usage, email hosting, web hosting, online marketing, VoIP, cloud storage, and the list goes on. If telecoms and ISPs prioritize the delivery of the Internet to us and our audience, we all lose.
On December 14th, the FCC will vote to abandon Net Neutrality and Title II rules. Our only hope is if congress puts a stop to it. Many members of congress have come out against the plan to end net neutrality, but many are for ending it. We need to band together and speak out.
The best way to do this is by reaching out directly to members of Congress and telling them about your concerns. By writing and calling those who can save net neutrality, we’ll help them understand that we depend on an open, transparent Internet.
Fortunately, the people behind https://www.battleforthenet.com/ make this easy. You can compose an email to Congress from the homepage, and even dial Congress members to tell them that you are concerned with the impact that killing net neutrality will have on your business.
If we all work together on this, we can help preserve the open Internet. Please, we urge you to take a few minutes out of your day to go to https://www.battleforthenet.com/ and make your voice be heard.