At the end of this month, Washington will be making huge news, affecting every small business.
On February 4th, Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC, announced what some found to be a stunning policy reversal on open internet. Wheeler let it be known that the FCC will be basing its soon to be announced net neutrality rules for Internet service providers (ISPs) on Title II of the Communication Act, reclassifying Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as utilities, like power companies and telecommunication providers. These newly proposed regulations would apply to both wired and wireless ISPs. Small businesses and their websites will be directly impacted if the FCC decides to end net neutrality.
Net neutrality means that all websites on the internet are treated equally. If net neutrality were to end, some websites would be able to be delivered at faster speeds, leaving those of us who cannot pay more for additional speed in the dust. It’s also likely that the cost of paid advertising or even posting on social websites will increase, as the Facebooks and Twitters will pass down the higher fees they are paying to us. In the simplest terms, ending net neutrality will make it more expensive for everyone to be found on the Internet. This is paid prioritization.
How did we get here?
The issue of net neutrality isn’t new. There have been grumblings on both sides of the issue since 2002 when the FCC classified cable modem service as an “information service,” and not a common carrier. Escaping the common carrier classification has protected ISPs from most FCC regulation, particularly in the area of paid prioritization. The belief was that unencumbered growth and investment would give Internet consumers a better product with more competitive pricing. In 2007, wireless broadband access was classified in the same way.
The common carrier rules in Title II are from 1934. They were originally meant to oversee industries that transported goods to the public, such as rail and freight companies as well as public utilities. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 extended the original Title II provisions to telecommunication companies. In 1996, the 20 million Americans who visited the Internet mostly used Netscape, via dial up, to spend the bulk of their 30 minutes a month reading their AOL mail. These folks are now but a tiny fraction of the 245 million Americans who hate the 3 seconds it takes to get on Google and who spend an average of nearly 30 hours a month online, some of them reading their AOL mail (there are still over 2 million people who subscribe to AOL. Wha’?!)
ISPs have been operating under the “Open Internet” rules since 2010, rules meant to stop ISPs from forcing content providers to pay to play on their networks. Verizon filed a lawsuit to block these rules. In January of 2014, a federal appeals court ruling found in favor of Verizon’s argument against being treated as an old timey telephone network, but this ruling also cleared a huge path for the FCC to write new rules regarding the Internet. President Obama also came out in favor of maintaining an open Internet.
What does this mean to ME?
If this change happens, it means that you are likely to start paying for things on the internet that you now receive for free, because the cost of doing business on the internet has increased for those businesses. It also means that if you have a website for your business, it could decrease traffic to your website.
Visualize the Internet as a two-lane highway, with a slow lane and a fast lane. The fast lane is a toll lane.
Those with lots of change in their cup holders,content providers like Netflix and Facebook, may pay to have their content streamed faster. Those with a couple of fuzzy pennies and a cough drop in their glove box, sites like Cats that Look Like Hitler and Bees Bees Bees , or YOU with your small business and small business website are going to have to stay in the slow lane or come up with a LOT more extra change.
Who is deciding this Neutrality Thing?
This case for and against net neutrality has made for some strange bedfellows. On the pro-neutrality side, you’ll find Twitter and Google, teaming up with the Parents Television Council and the hacker group Anonymous. You’ll also find the 4 million Americans who crashed the FCC’s website during the public comment period, due in no small part to John Oliver (MUST WATCH, especially if you have a thing for dingoes!) On the let’s get rid of net neutrality side, the big ISPs (Verizon, AT&T, Comcast,) join hands with civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council. They can also find at least one FCC Commissioner in their corner, Ajit Pai (former Verizon lawyer) who just came out against regulations on Feb 10th. In the truest definition of neutral, tech-giant Apple has publically neither come out for or against open internet.
The FCC is voting on February 26th. One thing is certain; the issue of net neutrality isn’t going to go away and those of us without Washington lobbyists need to pay attention now or we will literally be paying a lot more to be found along the high speed information highway.