Net Neutrality: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Net Neutrality: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The current Republican administration seems to be making a habit of repealing, redacting, or otherwise removing systems, acts, and policies which have been in the public interest. Health care has come under fire repeatedly over the past few months, major corporations are being promised a considerable tax cut at the expense of regular citizens, and the president is attempting to directly pressure the justice system, one of the strongest of the checks and balances meant to limit the government’s executive power, to comply with an obviously biased and despotic order to selectively apply the law in the government’s favor. Just a year after the election of the current administration, it comes as little surprise that net neutrality also finds itself on the chopping block, and the potential ramifications for not just those of us in digital marketing, but for all of us, are severe.

As a San Francisco digital marketing agency, it almost goes without saying that we’re in favor of maintaining net neutrality, but it’s also in the best interests of virtually every business and consumer alike.

What Is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality, as a term, refers to the moral stance and business practice by which internet content remains freely accessible by anyone with a network connection, regardless of their particular internet provider. The idea of a free and open internet has been around a long time, but the specific term was coined in 2003, in a paper by Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, then at the University of Virginia Law School, in response to concerns about major telecommunications providers exerting direct influence over their subscribers’ ability to access content.

Net neutrality, as a policy, prohibits an internet provider (ISP) from exerting three kinds of control:

  • Blocking
  • Throttling
  • Prioritizing

In practical terms, with net neutrality, your internet service provider is not allowed to deliberately speed up, slow down, or block particular content.

Why Would My ISP Have an Interest in Controlling My Content?

There isn’t very much choice when it comes to major telecommunications providers in the US. For 55% of the United States, there is only one provider so there is zero consumer choice. Of the remaining 45%, in a vast majority of those locations there are only two providers, so one’s options are still incredibly limited. With such a monopoly, it could be highly lucrative to prioritize certain content in exchange for kickbacks from the content providers.

For example, if net neutrality were to be repealed, your provider might throttle (or slow) the connection for Hulu, but prioritize (speed-up) the connection for Netflix, in exchange for a kick-back from Netflix for the special treatment. An ISP might have a vested interest in blocking content which didn’t accord with the ISP’s political affiliation or moral stance. In an extreme case, a provider like Comcast could, in theory, block streaming services like Hulu or Netflix, and limit its users to streaming services from its subsidiary company NBCUniversal. Net neutrality is one of several consumer protections that limit the kind of sway an ISP can have over content.

How Does Net Neutrality Work in Practice?

Back in June of 2006, former US Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) famously described the internet as a “series of tubes”. Adapting his metaphor, let’s envision the internet as being akin to the network of roadways crisscrossing the United States, with cars representing the flow of traffic to and from different websites. If you wanted to drive from San Diego to San Francisco, (maybe to pay a visit to your favorite San Francisco digital marketing agency!) you’d go North on I-5 for 8 hours or so, and call it square. Net neutrality is like that. It doesn’t matter where you’re going, or what car you drive; the roads are available to everyone (Yes, I know I-5 has tolls, but since they aren’t selectively applied, they don’t spoil my metaphor.) Roads aren’t allowed to give special treatment to certain makes of car, any more than the physical wires and routers of the internet are allowed to give preferential treatment to certain packets of data.

Net neutrality prohibits paid fast lanes, punitive slow-lanes, or blocked-off exits.

But what if I told you that, since you don’t drive a Cadillac, you have to detour on your road trip from I-5 to CA-99 north of LA, your trip will take an hour longer, and you’ll miss the Pacific Coast Highway scenery? Maybe the Cadillac people pay the state of California an annual contribution to restrict the highways, in order to incentivize commuters to buy Caddy’s. Without net neutrality prohibiting this predatory behavior, ISPs would be able to incentivize or restrict certain content or services.

How Is “Net Neutrality” Enforced, and How Is It Being Repealed?

In 2015, internet service providers were reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act. A Title I entity, like a television network, can freely control the content it delivers (showing certain programs or certain commercials), while a Title II entity, like a telephone provider, is considered a “common carrier” and is subject to much stricter rules. In the same way that your phone provider can’t put limits on which phone numbers you are or are not allowed to call, your ISP, having been reclassified under Title II, was no longer able to deliberately interfere with your free access to any legal content or internet activity. That reclassification was done under the Open Internet Order (2015), which was passed with 3 votes to 2 in favor by the FCC.

On the losing side of that vote was Ajit Pai, who is now FCC Chairman (and the nomination of the Republican party), and who in April of this year announced his intention to undo that reclassification, re-reclassifying ISPs under Title I. That announcement was made on April 26 and provoked some spooky stuff, which we’ll get to in a minute, but his plan has since been finalized, and, now being erroneously called the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” will be put to a vote on December 14th. The two Democratic voters have voiced strong opposition to the new plan, but the three Republican voters, including Pai, are expected to follow party lines and vote in favor. The vote, at this stage, is being considered more of a rubber-stamp than a vote proper.

Spooky Stuff?

In response to Pai’s announcement, Comcast, the very next day, redacted a three-year-old pledge from their site which had supported net neutrality. Here’s an image of the pledge, originally posted in 2014, as it appeared on April 26th,, before Pai’s announcement:

net neutrality

And here is the updated version:

net neutrality

There’s some fuzzy language here, which needs to be unpacked. First, while Comcast promises not to block or throttle content, or to discriminate against lawful content, they carefully omit any mention of the third means of control: prioritization. It was explicitly disavowed in their former pledge, but is now conspicuously absent.

Second, Comcast believes in transparency in their consumer policies. That’s actually required of even a Title I entity under the Communications Act, so it’s not especially noteworthy to be noted herein. What has been left carefully unsaid is that, should Comcast change their consumer policies, so long as those changes are done transparently they would be operating within their rights as a Title I provider.

Third, their final promise doesn’t actually mean much. If they are indeed reclassified under Title I, then the legally enforceable consumer protections would change to those of a television station rather than those of a common carrier.

This post isn’t an invective against Comcast in particular, but the above does provide a telling example of what will very likely happen to any major telecom (Time-Warner, AT&T, Verizon, and others) with a regional monopoly and a vested interest in throwing its weight around, if and when the reclassification goes through.

Are There Any Arguments against Net Neutrality?

There are two main arguments against net neutrality, but on close inspection, neither of them holds any real water.

The first goes like this: monopolies are bad, and the government is the biggest monopoly of them all. Industries with more government oversight, like healthcare, tend to get bogged down in red tape, while free market competition allows for innovation and better service for the consumer.

But…

There is nothing even remotely close a free market in the telecommunications industry, and the price of entry is prohibitive for any newcomers. Installing broadband networks is obscenely expensive. Verizon, for instance, paid upwards of $20 billion to roll out FIOS, a fiber optic network for phone, internet, and television, and it’s only available to something like one percent of the US population, virtually all of whom are clustered in upscale suburbs in the North East or LA. (Current boasts from Verizon claim service to 5 million Americans across nine states, but any map will show why that claim isn’t especially impressive in the North East.)

The second argument is more subtle: Since net neutrality will depend on government oversight, the government will have a pretense for installing monitoring devices on networks, allegedly to ensure compliance from the ISPs, which could seriously compromise internet privacy.

But…

We’ve had net neutrality for years, and it hasn’t materially impacted internet privacy. If anything, it’s actually increased privacy, since it removes any incentive on the part of the ISP to monitor your activities. Without net neutrality, if ISPs start throttling or prioritizing certain traffic sources, then they will need to keep a much closer eye on internet traffic and content. Additionally, if the government were to decide to monitor internet traffic, there are much more convenient avenues to pursue that end than sneaking secret surveillance systems into speed monitoring devices (which would be exceedingly costly and inefficient to implement anyway).

So long as ISPs have a functional monopoly (or until there is sufficient market competition) net neutrality makes things better for consumers, and repealing it only serves the interests of ISPs.

What Does All This Mean for Digital Marketing?

If net neutrality gets repealed, it will suddenly be possible for one site or service to pay for preferential treatment over their competitors. Since ISPs will be unlikely to get on the bad side of the major players (Netflix, Facebook, Google, etc.), and since paid partiality will require a significant investment and the promise of significant returns to make the investment worthwhile, it will be a tool for larger mid-size businesses to shut out their competition. Smaller sites will be hit especially hard, potentially getting starved of traffic entirely.

This pay-to-win model will render virtually every other digital marketing strategy moot. Even perfectly optimized content, with a huge link network and great user experience, will wither if it isn’t paying up. Without net neutrality, the internet as we know it could devolve into something like an extortion racket crossed with a mutually escalating arms race.

Unlike most other industries – even internet industries – our work involves both the surface-level (content, layout, optimization, etc.) and the subsurface infrastructure of the internet (server speed, link addresses, the physical structure of the network, and so on.) Removing net neutrality would represent a massive change to that infrastructure, and so we digital marketers would find most of our skills completely irrelevant. They depend on a level playing field.

What Does This Mean for All of Us?

The implications for the average consumer are clear, but let’s instead talk about what’s going to come next. Assuming the vote does reclassify ISPs under Title I, where do we go?

Well, that order might be challenged in the US Courts of Appeals. Depending on which state makes that ruling (the selection of state depends on where the ruling is filed, and when, and ultimately on a lottery to choose between them) the FCC’s order might be invalidated and so net neutrality would remain. If they force the issue, it would eventually get to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, a number of petitions in favor of net neutrality are circulating, and we encourage you to contact your local representative to voice your concerns.

The internet as we know it has woven itself into the very fabric of our lives. We take it for granted in the same way that we expect that there will be a light switch and a power outlet in every room. It’s everywhere; we use it professionally, socially, and privately. For most people, it has become our primary source of personal interaction, media, commerce, research, or leisure.

From the earliest computer networks, the internet has been built with a single guiding principle: the free exchange of information. For the first time in its history, that principle is under threat. If the services which deliver the content can’t be trusted to be impartial, we will have sacrificed the one quality which has made the internet special.

Colibri Digital Marketing

As we said at the top of this post, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a B Corp-certified San Francisco digital marketing agency is strongly opposed to anything which might compromise net neutrality. But what about you? Do you agree, or have we been too critical? Find us on Facebook or Twitter and let us know your thoughts, while you still can!

Nothing has been finalized yet, and we still have a long way to go before that dystopian future becomes a reality. So take heart, and know that our digital marketing tools are still every bit as useful as they’ve ever been, and we’ll be ready to roll with the punches if the internet does come under attack. For now, go ahead and click the happy button below to sign yourself up for a free digital marketing strategy session!

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