Net neutrality refers to the idea that internet service providers should grant equal access to everything on the internet, regardless of website content or the source of a particular website. The fact is, net neutrality puts both small business owners and large corporation on the same playing field by offering the same opportunities when it comes to the internet. This helps small businesses gain ground on larger competitors.
However, with Donald Trump's appointment of Ajit Pai as the new FCC chairman, many fear that this even playing field will be taken away. Any changes to these laws could lead to corporate bidding for internet data and speed prioritization which would be a detriment to small business owners.
What are the current net neutrality laws?
President Obama believed in net neutrality because when everyone has the same access, all businesses, regardless of size or money, have the same reach via the internet. He even went so far as to press the Common Carrier law upon internet service providers, which held them to the same regulations that public utilities are held to. Basically, this means that it is illegal for these providers to discriminate services based on customer or the nature of the goods. This has thus far helped keep the internet as a level playing field. In February 2015, the FCC voted to keep the current net neutrality laws in place with a 3-2 vote.
In 2013, President Obama named Thomas Wheeler the chairman of the FCC. He received a lot of flak for his choice, most notably from Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver. Oliver took aim at the fact that Wheeler was a lobbyist for cable and wireless companies and was even the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Despite many concerns, Wheeler came out on the side of the consumer on a majority of issues and went against cable companies. One specific example of this came last March when Wheeler created a set of guidelines to deny service providers the right to track their users’ search history in order to sell the information to advertisers.
After just a month into Pai’s term, many people are wondering if he can prove everyone wrong like Wheeler did. Will he side with small businesses and consumers despite his many quick moves to rid the FCC of the previous chairman’s actions?
What changes could impact small businesses?
In the days leading up to his inauguration, Trump was already having discussions with the FCC about changes he would like to bring about within the Commission. One of the possibilities would be allowing ISPs like Comcast or Charter Spectrum to be able to limit the data and speeds available to particular online content.
If ISPs have the ability to limit the speeds of our internet based on the websites or apps that we use, they will be able to charge each website for data prioritization. This prioritization would allow a website's users to have high internet speeds while browsing that site. This idea seems incredibly similar to an old mob tactic where business owners have to pay the mob in order to operate a store in “mob territory.” As a small business owner, especially one who sells products or services through the internet, you rely heavily on your website to bring in business. Imagine being told by a company like Comcast that in order to allow your users to continue to browse your site at high speeds, you will need to pay a hefty fee for data prioritization. You would almost assuredly not be able to make those payments. On the other hand, your multi-million dollar competitors, whether they be Walmart or another big box store, have almost infinite funds to make sure their website speeds are consistent. This, in effect, could put a small shop out of business because of how important internet traffic is to its bottom line.
Luckily, there are some people in the Senate who have the best interest of the little guy in mind when it comes to this issue. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts stated, “The big broadband barons and their Republican allies want to turn back the clock and make big cable and big cellphone companies the gatekeepers for internet access.” Having politicians on the “consumer’s side” is great and to have them speaking out so loudly against these possible prioritization guidelines means that small businesses may remain a real competitor in the online marketplace.In times like these, the best possible way to make sure that your business and livelihood stay unharmed is to simply stay informed. Read about the issues that could most directly affect you and if you see anything that you don’t agree with and you think will do more harm than good, make a call to your state representatives.