If you haven’t heard by now, the FCC dealt what could be a deathblow to Net Neutrality in a controversial vote to do away with a series of regulations that have been around pretty much since we were all wasting away in front of our 56K modems.
What does Net Neutrality mean, anyway? And what does it have to do with digital marketing? These are both great questions, so it falls to me to give great answers. Here we go.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is a doctrine that has been around for decades, ever since the dial-up days. Established by the FCC in the 1990’s, Net Neutrality basically forbids Internet service providers (ISPs) from treating one piece of web traffic differently than another piece of traffic. All bits of data that come through an ISP’s network have to be treated the same – the ISP can’t show preference to one over the other.
Practically speaking, this means the ISP can’t charge you more for “premium” access. They can’t charge you more monthly for, say, email access, or the ability to play video games online, or downloading something. They also can’t throttle your speeds when you use or download certain types of content, i.e. making your Internet slower because you’re binge-watching Stranger Things.
To put it yet another way, the ISP can’t say, “Hey, you. You want ESPN, Fox News, and AL.com? You’re gonna have pay an extra $15 above what you’re paying now – just because we feel like it.”
So far, that has been a great thing. A very nice thing, in fact.
What the FCC’s Decision Means
But the FCC doesn’t want us to have nice things, so the Republican-dominated board voted, in a split, party-line, 3-2 decision, to do away with those limitations.
Now, an ISP – if it wanted to – could charge you more than your neighbor for just about any reason. Say you prefer to use Gmail over Hotmail. There’s nothing stopping an ISP from charging you extra for using Gmail because they have a sweet deal with Hotmail.
Or maybe you want to watch college football on a certain channel. Since Alabama football is popular (Roll Tide), watching an Alabama game will cost you an extra $5 per month over watching, say, Auburn football. Or vice-versa.
Let’s say you watch a lot of movies. You particularly like Netflix. Well, if you go above a certain data cap, your Internet speed will be throttled. Before, it couldn’t be, but in this strange new world of ours, they can do that.
Use Facebook to share cat pictures and talk about how adorable your best friend’s new daughter is (while secretly wishing they’d stop posting about their little darling EVERY FIVE MINUTES)? Well, if you want Facebook access, you’re going to have to buy the super-premium Social Stalker package that runs $30 per month.
“But won’t the free market take care of this?” you ask. Good question. In a word, no, because telecommunications is pretty monopolistic as it is. Notice you probably don’t have very many choices for Internet access. And if all of your local ISPs decide to take advantage of this newfound freedom – and they will – then you won’t have any choice in the matter.
“Well, won’t a new ISP form to take advantage of the hole in the market?” you also ask. Another good question. (You’re good at this.) No, because it’s very difficult to start a new ISP. The current ISPs have made it that way by bribing – excuse me, lobbying – legislators at the local, state, and federal levels. So, no luck there.
Basically, in summary, ISPs can now do pretty much whatever they want, and you won’t have any say in it other than forking over your wallet once per month to keep the Internet access you used to enjoy without restriction.
What Does This Mean for Digital Marketing?
It’s hard to say, since we’ve never lived in an unprotected Internet environment. But, my guess is that digital marketing could become more expensive for all but the biggest players. Social media channels could be shifted into a new “social package,” which means fewer people would use social media, which means you’d have fewer potential customers to reach.
The potentially higher cost of doing business online could drive quite a few small and even medium-sized businesses out of business, too. Or, at least, take money away from their marketing budgets, which hurts them when they try to compete against bigger, better-funded competitors who can afford to take the hit.
It’s also possible that certain websites will become off-limits to advertisers since they will cost more to visit or view. That affects digital marketing because so much marketing is done via advertising on websites. But that’s just the paid side. Creating content could become more expensive and get less reach because of the aforementioned reasons.
Plus, if an ISP reaches an “arrangement” (spoken like a Mafioso) with a certain website host, say, GoDaddy, they can throttle traffic to non-GoDaddy websites and basically force you to move to GoDaddy.
That’s perhaps the scariest implication: that ISPs can control traffic to your website for just about any reason. And you won’t have anyone to complain to, because the FCC supports killing Net Neutrality and they enjoy the full support of telecoms and ISPs.
It’s the Wild Wild West – and ISPs are now the only ones with guns.
Will All This Scary Stuff Really Happen?
Probably – but there are a few barriers.
For starters, there will be a legal challenge from a lot of people and organizations who are ticked off by this decision. It’ll get tied up in court and could go all the way to the Supreme Court (although keep in mind the Court is dominated by the same party that controls the FCC, so…).
Congress could also act and remove oversight over the Internet from the FCC. They could pass a law establishing Net Neutrality that can only be overturned with an act of Congress. The downside is that, again, the party in control of the FCC is also in control of Congress, so…
The chances that Net Neutrality is dead for the time being are very high. It’ll probably take a shift in power in Congress and the White House to restore Net Neutrality, and that won’t come until 2018 at the earliest. Not to mention whatever dastardly, Machiavellian plans the ISPs put into place now will have staying power and will be hard to overturn even if Net Neutrality is put back into place.
What can you do? Call, email, write, and stalk your representatives and senators and tell them you support Net Neutrality. Because honestly, the Internet is one of the best things in the world, and we want it to stay exactly as it is. Most people in America support Net Neutrality, so if you’re one of them, tell Congress what you think.