There's been a lot of buzz about the December 14th Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearing and an outpouring of public opposition to the proposed repeal of net neutrality. But how is this discussion relevant to the marketing world? And what could the end of net neutrality mean for digital marketers?
In case you missed all the chatter, we've provided a quick recap on the debate and how it could affect the digital marketing strata.
Where did the idea of Net Neutrality come from?
Since the mid nineties, Internet service providers (ISPs) have been subject to rigorous federal regulation due to their classification as “common carriers”— a legal title that prohibits ISPs from engaging in site prioritization, throttling (intentionally slowing broadcasting speeds) or site blocking, under penalty of law. This standard was voted into effect in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which amended the existing Roosevelt-era Communications Act in order to classify the Internet as a Title II telecommunications entity.
Since Title II entities are held to higher federal regulatory standards, classifying the Internet as such set the tone for its evolution. Under FCC standards, all for-profit ISPs (such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, to name a few) must function as neutral communication portals — a clause which has maintained the freedom of information on the Internet for over two decades. The Open Internet Order of 2015 served to enforce the idea of net neutrality in the face of mounting debate, maintaining that the internet remain classified as a Title II carrier in order to protect consumer interests. Under the 2015 net neutrality rules drafted by the Obama administration, an internet provider cannot offer preferential treatment to any websites or enforce any bias with regard to internet accessibility or site quality.
On what grounds can Net Neutrality be repealed?
Although notions of freedom and openness feel integral to the Internet’s identity today, the original goals of the 1996 amendment were not as idealistic as they were practical. The intention of the Telecommunications Act was to promote the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications markets by allowing all communications businesses to compete freely in a common market. What it produced was a complex web of intermodal competition between service providers — some that function under different regulatory statutes. Two years ago, the Open Internet Order made it clear that, no matter our previous intentions, net neutrality was something worthy of government protection and preservation.
In the eyes of ISPs in favor of repealing net neutrality, current FCC regulations are seen as too heavy-handed and discouraging to potential investment opportunities. If net neutrality was repealed, for example, ISPs could lawfully pursue new ways of making money that are currently prohibited under the 2015 Open Internet Policy. Examples include ISPs directing users to their own apps or allowing affluent businesses to pay higher premiums in exchange for faster loading speeds — in essence, disrupting the equality of the digital playing field. By repealing net neutrality, the FCC would rely on ISPs to self-report on their own practices and behavior (rather than the FCC conducting regular reviews) — something that gives a majority of Americans cause for concern.
How would the end of net neutrality affect online marketing and consumer interests?
The end of net neutrality would mean that ISPs would no longer be required to provide unlimited or unfettered access to the internet. That means that larger businesses who can afford to pay for preferential treatment can easily eliminate their smaller competition simply by funding partnerships with ISP providers.
Digital marketing represents an eighty-billion dollar industry — one that is inherently linked to the existence of a free and equal internet. Currently, net neutrality stimulates competition between businesses of all sizes and types, creating a demand for digital marketing services that inspire organic web traffic. Services like SEO, content marketing, social media marketing and pay-per-click promotions all fall under this umbrella. Net neutrality also supports a consumer-centric marketing model which strives to offer online audiences' reciprocal value for their time and attention (that's why you're here, after all). If non-neutrality is adopted and the internet becomes dominated by top-paying sites, the digital marketing industry will have less influence on the form and direction of online traffic — with potentially devastating results for small-to-medium-sized businesses, marketers and consumers alike.
Although ISPs claim that a precipitous departure from current operating standards isn't the goal of the non-neutrality push, the end of net neutrality has great potential to negatively affect consumers. Most Americans fear that non-neutrality will give ISPs too much control over the freedom of information, thus threatening the future of the internet as we know it. But ending net neutrality also opens the door for ISP services to resemble complex mobile plans, where people are asked to pay more for better app quality, differential data access and video streaming speeds. Bah Humbug.
No matter what decision is made on December 14th, however, recent debate has brought the notion of net neutrality to the forefront of the American psyche — where it should stay. If net neutrality is revoked, there promises to be increased pressure on Congress to supersede FCC authority and enforce regulation on Internet providers.