What is Net Neutrality and Why Should Marketers Care?

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Like practically every topic of discussion on the internet, net neutrality is a subject that people either a) haven’t heard of and couldn’t care less about, or b) are rabidly passionate about and will die to defend (or so it seems in most site comment sections). But what is net neutrality anyway, and why should marketers care?

What is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) should allow all types of traffic to travel across their networks without discrimination; that all sites and applications should be treated equally, and not subjected to traffic shaping, bandwidth throttling and other means of control that serve ISPs' commercial interests.

Here are five facts that marketers need to know about net neutrality and why it’s so important:

1. Net Neutrality is Information Freedom.

Imagine a world in which internet service providers didn’t just provide their customers with access to the web, but also controlled what pages they could see, what articles they could read, and what videos they could watch. This isn’t the bleak world envisioned in George Orwell’s disturbingly prescient “1984” – this is a world without net neutrality.

If net neutrality laws are not passed to protect the free and open web, ISPs like Comcast (which was recently named “The Worst Business in America” for the second time by The Consumerist) would effectively become arbiters of what you – and your customers – can see, when you can see it, and how much extra you’ll be expected to pony up to see it.

Unless neutrality laws are introduced, internet subscription packages could soon look a lot like this:

Unless the web remains free and open, the flow of information will no longer be democratic – it will be controlled, repackaged and sold at a premium, the way cable channels are today.

2. Net Neutrality is Consumer Choice

Let’s say you run a small business. You have a great product, satisfied customers, and you’re ready to grow by getting into paid search. You launch a PPC campaign, target high commercial intent keywords, write compelling ads, and have these ads point at highly optimized landing pages. Awesome!

…Until your prospective customers click on your ad and their ISP throttles bandwidth to your landing pages because you can’t afford to bribe their ISP enter into a “preferential service agreement.” Your landing pages take forever to load, and your conversion rates plummet. You’ve wasted time, money and effort – all because your larger competitors can afford sleazy backhanders.

Net neutrality is essential to consumer choice. If ISPs get to choose which sites are seen and when, millions of businesses – large and small alike – will suffer, and so will consumers.

Unless the web remains free and open, consumers will have one choice – their ISP’s.

3. Net Neutrality is a Level Playing Field

Content marketing has enabled businesses of all sizes to provide their customers with highly relevant content tailored to meet specific needs, and the open web has allowed countless bloggers to build huge audiences by sharing content that they’re passionate about. This will be impossible if ISPs and large telcos get their way.

The preferential treatment that ISPs could (and would) charge for will tip the scale in favor of huge media companies that can afford to pay for unrestricted access and screw over everyone else. What about family-owned businesses that run great blogs and rely on quality content as a marketing tool? What about startups that have built large audiences through niche content and specialized knowledge? What about the blogs that break the news stories mainstream media outlets are afraid to touch because they’re owned by the same conglomerates as the ISPs? Nope, nope and nope. Oh, and forget about video marketing – unless you have bottomless coffers to pay the gatekeepers, it’s not going to happen.

Unless the web remains free and open, content marketing as we know it will be finished.

4. Net Neutrality is Innovation

Many of Silicon Valley’s biggest players have humble beginnings. Internet marketing’s largest (and most profitable) advertising platforms, including Google and Facebook, were highly innovative ideas that the open internet helped grow and propagate. Without net neutrality, these and countless other technological success stories would likely never have materialized (to learn more about how Google got started, check out our list of 26 crazy Google facts).

In addition to stifling innovation, the end of net neutrality would limit how marketing channels could evolve over time, limiting advertisers’ reach and making it increasingly difficult for marketers to adapt to changing consumer behavior. Of course, some of the major players could capitalize on these “new” discriminatory business models (a point ISP lobbyists have been pushing hard in Washington), but what about the little guys? Not so much.

Unless the web remains free and open, true innovation will slow to a crawl, costing businesses and the overall economy billions of dollars, and further tip the balance of power in favor of the ISPs.

5. Net Neutrality is Already in Danger

For many marketers, net neutrality isn’t even an issue, let alone a problem deserving of real action or support. However, the free and open web is already under threat, and has been for years:

  • In 2007, evidence came to light that Comcast was interfering with customers’ use of BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services – whether for legal purposes or otherwise.
  • Between 2007 and 2011, Canadian ISP Rogers engaged in discriminatory traffic shaping practices by reducing speeds of all encrypted traffic – including online gaming and other perfectly legal services.
  • In January, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Communications Commission had overstepped its authority in banning ISPs from throttling traffic as part of its proposed Open Internet Order – a severe blow to net neutrality.
  • In February, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast an undisclosed sum to ensure that its streaming video content reaches consumers more quickly after months of being throttled – paving the way for similar deals.
  • In February – a very bad month for net neutrality – Comcast (the country’s largest cable and internet provider) announced plans it wants to merge with Time Warner Cable (the country’s second-largest). This proposed merger would create a towering monopolistic behemoth, the likes of which have never been seen, further consolidating Comcast’s considerable power and severely reducing consumer choice.

Make no mistake – the war for information freedom is being waged as we speak. Unless action is taken, we’re one step closer to a future in which the mighty few control the information of the many.

Net Neutrality Must Be Saved

It doesn’t matter what type of marketer you are, or what kinds of campaigns you’re running; paid search, SEO, display advertising, social media – it all hinges on preventing the ISPs from becoming the uncontested gatekeepers of our information.

Image credit: Steve Rhodes via Flickr

What You Can Do to Save Net Neutrality

It might seem as though there’s nothing you – the person reading this post – can do. However, that’s not the case. There are plenty of ways you can make your voice heard, preserve net neutrality, protect your job, and save your clients’ campaigns:

Image credit: ZDNet

Search marketers are sometimes accused of being reactionary and waiting to see what everyone else does before taking action. Don’t let this happen. Without net neutrality, search and internet marketing will be changed forever – and the results won’t be pretty.

UPDATE - Net Neutrality in 2017

When I originally wrote this post in 2014, the landscape of internet regulation – particularly in the U.S. – was very different. Attitudes toward net neutrality were generally positive among consumers and advocacy groups, and although we faced stern challenges, there was a palpable sense of optimism that the internet might just remain open.

Since then, we’ve seen a number of measures designed to weaken net neutrality gain widespread support, so I thought it would be worthwhile to update the original post.

What’s Changed in Net Neutrality?

The biggest change in net neutrality since the publication of the original post has been the transition in leadership at the White House and the subsequent changes at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC’s former chairman, Tom Wheeler, ended his tenure at the agency in January, paving the way for his successor, Ajit Pai, to take the reins.

 Net neutrality Ajit Pai Chairman FCC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai

A long-time veteran of the telecommunications industry, Pai served in a variety of roles at the FCC between 2007 and 2011 before being formally appointed to the commission as a Republican in 2012 by former President Barack Obama.

What Are Pai’s Views on Net Neutrality?

In the past, Pai has said that it is vital for the FCC to keep pace with the rapidly changing technological landscape in which ISPs operate, a position that few could argue against regardless of their political affiliation. However, Pai’s views on the role of the FCC and its responsibilities to American consumers are problematic, to say the least.

Chairman Pai has long been an outspoken opponent of net neutrality legislation, including measures introduced by his predecessor that forbade internet service providers from throttling certain kinds of internet traffic, restricting access to certain websites, and implementing the kind of paid prioritization we discussed above. Pai voted and spoke out repeatedly against the Title II reclassification that Wheeler introduced in February 2015, calling the Title II reclassification “heavy handed” and “all about politics.”

Net neutrality cable infrastructure investment data 

In addition, Pai seems more concerned by the fact that investment by American ISPs purportedly fell by 5.6% between 2014 and 2016 (a figure that was disputed as inaccurate by the non-profit net neutrality advocacy group Free Press, which claimed investment actually grew during that period), a decline that Pai believes was caused by those heavy handed regulations, than he is about maintaining equality of access to the web. Of course, that’s before we get to the inconvenient truth that the reason ISPs are reluctant to invest in infrastructure – yet continue to do so anyway – is because actually laying cable is hideously expensive and isn’t nearly as profitable as their “dumb pipes.”

Secondly, Pai’s attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when it comes to ISPs is equally problematic. Pai simultaneously claims that existing regulations are stifling innovation and job creation – a position that has been thoroughly debunked – all the while praising ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon for merely not screwing over their customers, despite the fact that many ISPs have been violating existing net neutrality regulations for years.

Net neutrality ISPs avoid competing with each other map 

Cable and DSL coverage areas by company in Roanoke, VA. Note how few areas of overlap exist
between service providers in this area.

In short, Chairman Pai believes that the same gigantic ISPs that already purposefully avoid competing with one another to preserve what is essentially a duopoly across huge swathes of the U.S. should be left to their own devices, and that regulations protecting equal access to the internet should be scrapped in favor of corporate profits.

What Does This Mean for Net Neutrality?

Speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, on April 25, Pai said that the FCC is poised to vote on the repeal of the Title II reclassification on May 18. This vote is what’s known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which means that a final vote on the issue could come later this year. It also means that Pai will (ostensibly) seek public comment on his proposal to reverse the Title II reclassification that included many net neutrality provisions.

 Net neutrality principles no blocking no throttling

Given Chairman Pai’s favorable view of ISPs, we’re likely to see significant increases in paid prioritization in the coming years. We’re also likely to see further attempts by ISPs to force companies such as Google and Netflix to pay even more to deliver their services to consumers, despite the fact that they’re already paying them handsomely. The impact of paid prioritization and the rise of so-called “zero rating” plans (in which ISPs offer subscribers access to their own streaming media services that do not count toward limited bandwidth plans, unlike those of competitors such as Netflix) could be felt by consumers, advertisers, and small businesses, although the impact is difficult to calculate at this time.

For now, few details have emerged about precisely how Pai plans to protect consumers from paid prioritization and other anti-neutrality measures. The FCC has reportedly entertained the notion of allowing ISPs to adhere to a set of standards ensuring equality of access – yet these standards are likely to remain entirely voluntary. Equally mysterious is what action the FCC might take if an ISP were to violate these voluntary guidelines by prioritizing its own services over those of a competitor.

What Can I Do to Protect Net Neutrality?

The single most effective thing you can do to protect net neutrality is to let your representatives know that you support an equal, open internet for everyone. How do you do this? By showing up to town halls and calling your reps.

 Net neutrality Republican town halls protests

To find a town hall near you, check Battle for the Net. This helpful resource has tons of further reading (in case you’re not quite outraged enough), as well as an interactive map of forthcoming town halls across the U.S. If you don’t see a town hall near you, there may be an event planned for a future date. Signing up for your representative’s email newsletter is a great way to not only learn more about their policy positions and voting record, but also when forthcoming town halls and similar events are taking place.

If you’d rather call your representatives (which you should do in addition to attending a town hall if you can), find their number(s) at CallGov. In addition to providing the direct phone numbers of your elected officials, you’ll also find handy script prompts to help you tell your reps to keep the internet free and open in case you’ve never called your reps before or aren’t quite sure what to say.

Finally, it’s vital that we all stay informed. With so much happening, it’s easy to forget about net neutrality. But, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the very future of the internet as we know it – our internet – is at stake. Follow Free Press on Twitter to stay up to date with the latest news on net neutrality, and consider following Ars Technica or The Verge for as-it-happens coverage and in-depth analysis. 

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Comments

Adam Heyward Higgins
Apr 18, 2014

Well-written and informative, with a bit of humor to make the reading enjoyable.  This piece should be requiredreading for all internet users.

Dan Shewan
Apr 18, 2014

Thanks, Adam. I find the problem with net neutrality as a "cause" is that it tends to be something of a closed circuit - the people who are the most passionate about it tend to move in circles with similarly-minded people, making it harder for the urgency of the problem to reach a wider audience.Thanks for reading, appreciate you taking the time to comment.

Columbia Jones
May 11, 2014

Hi Dan, Very excellent article!  Everyone should read it and then take action.  Thank you fordoing such a great job in assembling all the info and images and making the pointso very well.

Gaurav
Dec 22, 2016

Hi Dan,

Great article. Very informative. I had a question. In essence how is the issue of the absence of net neutrality any different from say, advertisements? I could put forward a parallel argument that, by the same rationale, advertisements should be illegal, because they allow bigger companies that can afford to spend more on advertising to reach far more customers than say, a young entrepreneur (with an arguably better product) with no such monetary resources - thereby allowing the less efficient larger company's product to reach the market and effectively kill the better product.

I'm just trying to understand what makes the issue of net neutrality so different from most other issues out there today.

Thanks for your article!

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