Net Neutrality – An Ongoing Battle

The concept of net neutrality was originally introduced in 2005 by the FCC for the purpose of providing open Internet potential to all businesses, regardless of size. In 2015, further regulations were passed by the Obama administration. The 2015 ruling viewed the Internet as a utility, like electricity or water, and stated that everyone should have equal access to all online sites. It also protected consumers from discriminatory practices. The 2015 regulations mandated the disclosure of hidden fees and provided a channel through which customers and competitors could file complaints regarding unfair practices.

An online version of freedom of speech, net neutrality sought to ensure that all information was treated equally and all users would have equal access to all information. Net neutrality protections banned the broadband companies from slowing down or blocking websites. They also banned a pay-to-play concept whereby businesses could pay higher fees to gain faster and easier access to Internet users.

The Trump administration began a roll back of the regulations when, in April 2018, a repeal of the 2015 net neutrality protections was passed. The repeal removes FCC from an oversight role of broadband companies and removed the telecommunications designation from Internet service providers. New transparency rules do mandate that companies have to explain to their consumers how they are handling content and access to that content.

Supporters of the repeal believe that less control by the FCC will encourage investment and promote network growth. They believe that broadband companies will create a more powerful Internet by investing in services and infrastructure. Supporters of the repeal also believe it will encourage providers to bring Internet services to areas that currently have none.

Needless to say, those who oppose the repeal believe there will be a much different impact on consumers and small businesses.

Large companies that provide broadband access are now able to impede online content by no longer being required to allow equal access to all content. Providers are able to decide which content is most accessible and they could block access to specific content or sites they disagree with.

Internet service providers are also now permitted to slow down or increase the speed of sites. Concerns regarding site speed are exacerbated by a general understanding of the algorithms used for Google search rankings. These concerns are especially great for those organizations who regularly post video content. Internet service providers could charge businesses for faster data speed and higher resolutions. Odds are good that these expenses would most likely be passed down to consumers. Another thing we could see is preferential treatment being given to different websites and companies. The concern is that big broadband companies will provide preferential treatment to their own services over those of their competitors. The level playing field created by net neutrality will shift, giving large, wealthy companies an advantage over smaller businesses.

There are concerns beyond those that prices will be raised, Internet service providers will target specific companies for faster or slower services, and that Internet service providers will exert control over which content is or isn’t shown. Consumers could be charged different prices for particular content (paid prioritization). Consumers may also see different packaging. For example, a service provider could offer a social media bundle similar to the channel bundles offered by satellite and cable companies. Many believe that changes will happen gradually in regards to fees and site speed until the new practices become the norm.

Huge lobbying efforts have occurred to keep, and now, restore, net neutrality regulations. The topic will become a focal point of the midterm elections. The Senate successfully voted in May to maintain net neutrality by approving a resolution that aimed to restore the 2015 regulations. The bi-partisan vote passed even without the support of all 49 Democratic senators. The House of Representatives is still working towards consensus and is looking to design and pass legislation that provides a more permanent solution than the Senate resolution. As of the beginning of June, the House was less than 50 votes from following the Senate in reversing the repeal of net neutrality.

Many states filed lawsuits to try and stop the repeal of net neutrality. Individual governors and mayors are taking it upon themselves to attempt to reinstate the rules by threatening to pull business from companies that don’t continue to follow the 2015 rules. In addition, many states are looking to pass their own net neutrality legislation even though the FCC repeal contains verbiage that states the FCC has the authority to prevent states from passing legislation in opposition to the repeal. Internet service providers don’t want to contend with individual states’ different regulations and while the FCC order bans state level legislation, the legality of such a ban is questionable and will face court challenges.

There are a number of active court battles challenging the FCC’s reversal both on justification and procedural grounds. One of the current court fights is regarding whether it is even legal for the FCC to repeal the 2015 regulations. A decision in that case is not expected until 2019. Many believe Internet service providers will wait for resolutions in the courts and Congress prior to making any major changes.

AT & T supports net neutrality that provides privacy and nondiscriminatory safeguards for all users of the Internet. Early in 2018, the network giant ran a series of full-page ads calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” to help guarantee an Internet with openness and fairness for all users. But while AT & T does not endorse censoring content or discriminating based on content, it does support paid prioritization as a means to facilitate higher end services and, of course, increase revenue.

Legally, broadband companies could slow down or block content but it doesn’t mean that will happen. Prior to the 2015 regulations, Internet service providers did not engage in any of the practices regarding which opposition folks have expressed concerns. Many of the broadband companies have stated they will not block or discriminate against content but some have conceded they may eventually implement paid prioritization practices, creating a tiered Internet service. Additionally, there are some broadband providers who, under terms of acquisition agreements, are required to maintain net neutrality rules such as NBC Universal (until 09/2018) and Charter, who acquired Time Warner Cable (until 2023).

While it is sure to be a key issue in the midterm elections, net neutrality is an ongoing battle. The best small businesses can do at this point is to continue creating high-quality web content. Strategy Driven Marketing specialists are ready to help you make the most of the Internet as it exists today. Contact us now!