When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal the rules protecting net neutrality on December 14, 2017, they weren’t thinking about the 83 percent of Americans who were opposed to their actions. They weren’t thinking about the hundreds of thousands of businesses that could be destroyed by the repeal. They weren’t thinking about the devastating effect it might have on the U.S.economy. In all likelihood, the three responsible for voting to repeal net neutrality were only thinking about themselves.
Before we get into exactly how the repeal of these rules hurts small businesses, it’s important to cover exactly what net neutrality is. In 2015, the FCC adopted a set of guidelines that prohibited internet service providers (such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon) from speeding up, throttling, or blocking content, applications, or websites on the internet. They were not allowed to favor any websites over others or charge consumers for higher quality content. To put it plainly, the internet was to be treated as an equal playing field for all.
These policies weren’t pulled out of thin air — they were based on those that governed other utilities in the U.S. The net neutrality rules were most closely based on the Communications Act of 1934, which, among other things, required communications technology (both wired and wireless) to be operated in a nondiscriminatory fashion.
As it currently stands, anyone who wants to start a business has unlimited access to online resources. When it comes to the internet, they are essentially on equal footing with their much larger competitors. This free and open internet is responsible for the unprecedented creativity, innovation, and discovery that’s driven our economy in the past two decades — and the net neutrality guidelines set in 2015 were meant to protect both companies and consumers by keeping the internet from being manipulated by the whims of big business.
The repeal of net neutrality gives large ISPs the green light to start charging businesses for faster website access speeds. What this means is that if your competition can afford to pay for these internet fast lanes, your small business is automatically relegated to the slow lane. And the bigger these competitors are, the bigger their spend. They can speed past you and snatch up customers that might have otherwise been yours.
If you aren’t able to pay for high-access speeds, your website will operate slowly for your visitors (think ‘90s dial-up speed). Research shows that 40 percent of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load, which is why a site’s speed plays such a significant role in Google’s search rankings. This means that the more a small business’s site is throttled, the further their ranking will drop.
If you do choose to “pay to play,” it could put a serious strain on your resources. In order to promote your business and gain visibility, you might be forced to make cuts in other areas. But reducing wages, downsizing staff, and slowing job growth — just for the sake of an online presence — only causes the economy to suffer more in the long run. What’s more, just by partnering with one ISP, your business is instantly the “competition” to the other ISPs on the market.
In the end, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, choosing between the lesser of two evils. You can pay to join the fast lane and ensure that customers of your service provider of choice have full access to your website. However, you’ll be cut off from customers of competing ISPs. Or, you can choose not to pay to play and remain open to all consumers, but then you’re left in the slow lane, which can ultimately cost you business altogether.
Without net neutrality regulations in place, internet service providers are free to slow down (or block) access to whichever websites they choose; require consumers to pay additional fees to gain access to certain content; and favor content from partner companies by speeding up their sites.
As scary as this all sounds, none of it is set in stone quite yet. Lawmakers in multiple states have introduced bills to forbid internet providers to block or slow down sites or online services, and a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution from Sen. Ed Markey to reverse the FCC’s net neutrality repeal is set to go before the senate.
However, should their efforts fail, there will be little in the way of internet service providers that decide to abuse their newfound powers. More than half of American households don’t have a choice of broadband provider, essentially leaving both businesses and consumers alike at the mercy of their internet service provider.
Small businesses that were once able to take on the Goliaths in their industry by engaging in online marketing and SEO are now left spinning their wheels in a desperate attempt to reach their target audience. What was once an equal playing field will now be dominated by those who have the most money to spend on internet fast lanes. Because of this, the way brands market to consumers on the internet will change drastically, leaving the future of the digital marketing industry in peril.
The loss of net neutrality will also stand in the way of future innovations. Most small businesses will be unable to reach their intended market without having to put forth the kind of capital that they simply don’t have access to. Steve Benjamins of Site Builder Report put it this way: “We don’t know what businesses will be built, what songs will be uploaded and what podcasts will be recorded in the future. We do know that repealing net neutrality would be sacrificing that future potential.”
Ultimately, the repeal of net neutrality will hurt small businesses, consumers, and the American economy. Like the severe lack of oversight and regulation that let the banking and real estate industries nearly dismantle our country in the late 2000s, the only winners here will be the very wealthy. The rest of us will be left to fend for ourselves.