Net Neutrality has been a topic widely covered in the news lately and it stands to reshape the internet as we know it. By altering the regulations surrounding internet providers and their delivery of service, Net Neutrality’s repeal stands to change the online inter-connectivity for millions of Americans. Net Neutrality’s demise could have a significant impact on internet users across the spectrum, from the savviest of internet users to the casual social media fan.
What Exactly Is Net Neutrality?
In a nutshell, Net Neutrality regulations were designed to prevent internet service providers from picking and choosing which content their customers have access to. After a series of court cases in the 2000’s, the FCC enacted rules that were designed to protect the privacy and freedom of internet users, regardless of their carrier.
The idea of Net Neutrality is not a new issue, despite its recent prominence in the news cycle. The hot button topic has resurfaced with the FCC’s decision to repeal the Net Neutrality’s regulations. The FCC claims repeal will spur growth and innovation by eliminating regulation while consumer groups argue that it will give ISPs the power to limit access, charge more, and manipulate service. It’s important to note that the FCC’s repeal is not set in stone – legal and legislative challenges to the repeal are already in motion. Still, users, businesses and marketers should educate themselves so that they’re ready for a world without Net Neutrality.
Concerns About Repeal
Proponents of Net Neutrality fear that, in the absence of regulation, ISPs will charge users more while limiting their access to content around the web. In particular, they cite three concerns: blocking, throttling and prioritization. While these concerns are speculative at the moment, each could have a profound effect on the future of the internet.
Under Net Neutrality regulations, content on the internet is considered open, regardless of what service provider you choose. With deregulation, it would be possible for ISPs to block access to online services that have competing business interests with the service providers. In 2005, this played out in the courtroom after a small ISP in North Carolina blocked the VoIP service Vonage. This perceived overreach helped lay the foundation for the Net Neutrality rules as we know them.
While ISPs will have the capability to block access to sites that have competing interests with their business goals, occurrences of this will likely be few and far between. Blocking access to competitors would require significant changes to an ISP’s infrastructure and would risk a PR nightmare – the incentive simply isn’t there in most cases. As we’ve seen before, businesses with direct competing interests with ISPs could draw the ire of the service provider, putting their ability to cater to certain markets at risk. The potential for censorship, on the other hand, is disconcerting to most internet users, especially marketers, who often push the envelope for clients in order to gain more exposure.
With the repeal of net neutrality, ISPs would be able to speed up and slow down service as they see fit, creating “fast lanes” for some websites while throttling speeds for others. The creation of internet “fast lanes” means that service providers now have the opportunity to speed up or slow down websites as it sees fit. Proponents of net neutrality fear that ISPs will charge content providers extra to maintain speedy connections while slowing down competitors to add value to their own platforms. Comcast slowing down Netflix in order to boost Hulu subscribers is a plausible example, considering they own a 30% stake.
While throttling of internet speed to favor specific sites and diminish others is likely, this action would presumably only impact the high-traffic websites that are deemed especially valuable to ISPs, including such sites as Netflix and Facebook. These costs are likely to be passed along to the user in the form of generic service charges or specialized premium internet packages.
A continued commitment to creating websites which are properly compressed and optimized for speed will work to counteract most slowing of internet speed that a user may face when attempting to access a website. Search engines and users have long valued fast websites and, regardless of the fate of Net Neutrality, speed will remain a key facet of internet marketing.
Prioritization of websites and other online assets is likely with the FCC’s decision. Deep-pocketed brands will be able to cut deals with ISPs in order to impact their performance and visibility of their websites and services on certain carriers. Startups and smaller brands, who already struggle to go toe-to-toe with more established companies, will find it more difficult to compete on the web. In addition, ISPs will almost certainly prioritize their own assets in any way possible in order to streamline use for consumers who might otherwise opt for a competitor.
While results on search engines will not specifically change as a result of prioritization by ISPs, the landscape as we know it has the potential to shift. Search visibility and its importance to small businesses will not change when it comes to attracting new customers. However, it is possible for the search waters to become muddled. ISPs could enter the search game with engines of their own since they can control prioritization now. Additionally, ISPs that are already in the search market (Verizon with Yahoo and Alphabet Inc. with Google Fiber) have an opportunity to further manipulate search to favor their business interests.
ISPs would still be required to show paid prioritization disclaimers, which might make them think twice before going overboard with direct manipulation of search results. The indirect result, however, might be a biased playing field that drives up costs for users and advertisers alike. Platforms and engines who pay for prioritization on providers’ networks will likely pass these costs down to the advertisers on their channels, directly impacting the return. A reformatting of results and content is also a distinct possibility in order to increase ad impressions, limiting the attention organic results garner.
Deregulation & The Digital Landscape
The outlook of the internet and the legislation surrounding Net Neutrality faces a lot of uncertainty in the near future. While many would make it seem like it is the imminent demise of the internet, the murkiness surrounding the topic makes it impossible to know what the future holds. This uncertainty makes it even more difficult for brands and advertisers to prepare for what lies ahead. Weathering the storm of digital marketing is bad enough, but maintaining course through choppy waters caused by massive deregulation is a feat not easily accomplished. As this topic plays out in court, its true impact on digital marketers will become clearer.
The potential impact that the repeal of Net Neutrality has stands to serve as a harsh reminder for many marketers who have not diversified their efforts. The topic embodies the need for marketers to continue to embrace a multi-faceted approach to their endeavors and avoid putting all of their eggs in one basket. Search engines, social media platforms, and other digital channels serve as rented space that can change at a moment’s notice. By avoiding over-concentration in a single marketing channel, marketers can help limit the impact of outside threats, such as those posed with the repeal of Net Neutrality.