You may have been hearing a lot about net neutrality lately. July 12th was the Internet-wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality and was marked by many prominent online content providers displaying banners, ads and alerts on their websites to promote net neutrality. But if you're unfamiliar with the concept you may be wondering "What is net neutrality?" and "How does it affect my business?"
The answer to the first question is simple. Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs and government agencies should treat all data on the internet equally without discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application or medium of communication. Basically, this means corporations can't pay off internet service providers to send their sites or applications to your home faster than a small business down the street.
The FCC enacted net neutrality rules in 2015 to protect the open internet and allow equal access to all websites and apps. These rules prohibit broadband providers from "halting, slowing or otherwise tampering with the transfer of any data, except for legitimate network management purposes such as easing congestion or blocking spam."
The second question is more complicated and it's at the heart of the debate surrounding net neutrality. The Common Carrier law that has been in place for the last few years holds ISPs to the same regulations that public utilities are held to, meaning it's illegal for these providers to discriminate services based on the customer or nature of the goods. But recent events have left the future of these laws in question and without them in place, ISPs could potentially start charging more for "fast lane" service that prioritizes content based on a company or user's ability to pay and "slow lanes" for those content providers who can't.
This means providers could give preferential treatment to companies who can afford to pay to have their content easily accessible to the public. If there were no net neutrality rules in place, providers like Comcast or Charter could charge you fees to transmit your business site's content as fast as your multi-billion dollar competitor's. If you are unable to pay and your business is relegated to the "slow lane" it could become impossible to compete with larger businesses in your market where web presence is a vital part of sales and advertising.
There is also talk of ISPs selling access to the internet in much the same way cable companies sell access to television channels. Users would be able to purchase internet packages that allow or restrict access to the web based on their ability to pay. Just like a cable company, the more you pay, the more access you have to a variety of "channels" or websites.
With the policies in place now, entrepreneurs have the ability to compete against anyone because all internet users have the ability to access your website just as easily as that of your multi-national competitors. But without net neutrality, there is a potential for service providers to slow down or even block access to sites based on an owner's ability and willingness to pay.
And if you provide a service that is in direct competition with an ISP, without net neutrality rules in place, there's nothing to stop the ISP from steering users away from your content and toward the content that they own. If it takes 10 minutes to complete an online transaction through your site, and 2 minutes to complete it through your competitor's site, simply because of the speed of access granted by an ISP, which site is more likely to get the sale?
The net neutrality debate is important for all users of the internet and especially businesses as we continue to rely more heavily on our access to the web to not only share data with customers, but to manage the various aspects of our own workplace. As it's a critical part of our daily lives, it's important to make sure it continues to work for everyone and that it maintains equality across all users, consumers and businesses alike.
If you've heard of net neutrality but never really gave it a second thought, we encourage you to start looking into the impacts of net neutrality on all aspects of your business. Get involved in the debate or just educate those around you about the importance of ensuring that this critical infrastructure remains openly available to all users and content providers.