What the Latest Net Neutrality Challenge Means for Local Businesses
In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logged a win for net neutrality when it reclassified broadband as a common carrier, covered under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The FCC published its Net Neutrality regulations two months later and, in June 2015, the new rules went into effect.
What did the FCC’s decision mean in practice, though? By classifying Internet service providers (ISPs) as “common carriers” under Title II, the FCC ruling forbids ISPs from engaging in any discriminatory practices, including how they charge, regulate, and classify broadband services. The 2015 ruling was considered a huge win for net neutrality, an issue that’s been hotly debated for decades.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Simply put, net neutrality ensures a free and open Internet, one that doesn’t discriminate against smaller ISPs or websites. Net neutrality is why you can click on any legal website and have the same browsing experience, from small startups to behemoths that draw in millions of users every day.
The evolution of the Internet, from its dial-up origins and five-minute page load times to a massive online community with billions of users, paved the way for categorizing it as a necessary utility rather than a luxury. This is why a relatively new technology like the Internet was considered eligible for Title II status under an Act that dates six decades before the average person even heard of the Internet.
In fact, though the term net neutrality is a recent one, the idea of end-to-end neutral service is over 150 years old, dating back to at least the telegram. Telegraph companies were required to route all telegrams equally and without regard to their contents. It’s also why phone companies can’t dictate who you call, who calls you, or what you talk about.
Why Are We Fighting About Net Neutrality Again?
If this was all decided over two years ago, why are we talking about it again? Because we have a new President, and a new FCC Chairman.
President Trump didn’t even wait for his January 20 inauguration to begin talks with the FCC about net neutrality. One of his first appointments, on January 23, 2017, was Anjit Pai as the new Chairman of the FCC.
The 2015 win was a squeaker; the FCC voted 3 to 2 in favor of net neutrality. Anjit Pai, a former lobbyist and lawyer for Verizon, cast one of the dissenting votes. And on April 26, 2017, three months after his appointment, Pai proposed rolling back the Title II classification. On May 28, the FCC voted two to one to move forward with Pai’s proposal. July 17 is the Official Comment date and August 16 is the Reply Comment date. The final vote will occur later this year.
In addition to Pai’s proposal, nine Republican Senators sponsored legislation to prohibit the FCC from employing its regulatory authority in support of net neutrality. Led by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), eight senators cosponsored the Restoring Internet Freedom Act, including Ted Cruz (R-TX), who compared net neutrality to the Affordable Care Act. The bill’s complete list of sponsors includes:
- Mike Lee (R-UT)
- Ben Sasse (R-NE)
- James Inhofe (R-OK)
- John Cornyn (R-TX)
- Rand Paul (R-KY)
- Ron Johnson (R-WI)
- Ted Cruz (R-TX)
- Thom Tillis (R-NC)
- Tom Cotton (R-AR)
The result now is that net neutrality faces opposition from both the FCC and senate Republicans (no Democrats are expected to support Lee’s bill). However, not all Republicans support ending net neutrality. That’s why more people are concerned about the FCC proposal than the Senate bill.
What Does the Loss of Net Neutrality Mean for Local Businesses?
Even if you were born after the 1970s, you’ve likely heard stories of the days of the “mom ‘n pop” business. These niche shops and companies provided a specific good or service. Then, the big box stores began arriving, driving these smaller shops out of business. After all, a local store doesn’t last long when a big box retailer enters the area. They simply don’t have comparable buying power. If you run a lawnmower shop, you may sell 10 mowers a month. You aren’t buying hundreds or even thousands at a time, so you don’t get the discounts offered to retail giants such as Home Depot, Sears, and Wal-Mart. The modern day equivalent to this change in the retail landscape is Amazon’s business model annihilating the local bookstore, even the big box versions such as Borders.
Net neutrality is why local businesses and startups enjoy a level online playing field. Without it, ISPs have the ability to pick and choose Internet speeds based on websites. That means that they can create tiered pricing (data prioritization). You want the best speeds for your site? Prepare to pay more if you want to keep bringing web traffic into your business. Can’t afford to? That’s too bad, because your big box competitor can.
When it comes to local SEO, your search rankings are incredibly important, and Google’s algorithm considers a variety of factors. One of these is site speed. Does your cable, mobile provider, or ISP offer a product or service that competes with yours? Net neutrality is the only reason that provider can’t impede the public’s access to your business. Without it, phone, cable, and ISP companies become the Internet’s gatekeepers, deciding which sites enjoy high-speed access and which do not.
It isn’t as if we have no precedent proving this is exactly what would happen without an open Internet (and that was with net neutrality laws in place). Comcast in particular has repeatedly pushed past the boundaries, including blocking VPN ports, blocking users from sharing public domain files in 2007, and restricting access to popular streaming sites (such as Netflix) in 2012 to promote their own streaming service (Xfinity).
What Can You Do?
Internet users have been fighting the big dogs over net neutrality since the early 2000s and, so far, the voices of the millions have drowned out the deep pockets of the few. Once again, the Net has organized to protest the FCC’s proposal. Join the protest to make sure the politicians hear your voice over the lobbyists fighting to destroy the level playing field.