To clarify, net neutrality is the concept that all Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data traffic equally and cannot accept payment from companies for preferential content delivery, nor charge users a subscription to access certain websites (in the way Cable TV does for channels).
The end of these regulations means that Internet providers are no longer prohibited from engaging in discriminatory or preferential practices, degrading or filtering out content, or charging users for access to content, however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will require them to be transparent about how they handle web traffic.
Comcast Corp, Verizon Communications Inc., and AT&T Inc. all pledged not to block or discriminate against legal content after the expiration. But even before the regulations were repealed, Comcast secretly slowed ("throttled") uploads from BitTorrent and didn’t stop until ordered to do so by the FCC. AT&T was also caught limiting access to FaceTime to those users who paid for their new data plan. And Verizon Wireless was accused of throttling videos on Netflix and YouTube. So, I’d love to say “don’t worry, we’re in good hands”… but that would be foolish.
What Does the Non-neutral Online World Look Like?
Until now, the Internet has been lovingly considered a basic public utility—where paying customers have access to whatever content is available online and where all content is delivered with equal priority. And it’s been a world of free-flowing competition, which has created a high demand for smart content strategies, detailed SEO, engaging social-media campaigning, and targeted pay-per-click services. Using these practices, a small start-up could take on (and actually stand a chance against) a mammoth competitor. It’s what paved the way for companies like Skype to dominate online telecoms ahead of AT&T and for Netflix to completely redefine the media landscape despite Verizon’s best efforts.
A world without net neutrality is one where there is nothing to stop ISPs from charging companies for website services or slowing down (or even blocking) content that might be considered competition, or in favour of the highest bidder. This gives big cable companies full control over what we (and our users) can see and access online.
Not only does this raise serious concerns around online censorship… but it means you could start finding it a lot harder to reach your audience.
What Does It Mean for Content Marketers?
After years of working out how being online affects the conversations businesses have with consumers, we’re finally in full, omnichannel, respectful, personalized, and double-consented dialogue with them, and its proving to be a win-win for all concerned. The death of net neutrality could mean all this comes to a grinding halt!
A study by the Aberdeen Group found that online shoppers expect web pages to download content instantly. Even a one-second delay could lead to "11% fewer page views, a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction, and 7% loss in conversions". That’s huge.
And with the Internet soon to gain a “fast lane”, smaller firms sitting in the default slow lane have little chance of even getting their ads and content seen. Your perfectly tuned SEO could find itself obsolete as visibility goes to the highest bidder and your advertising will take a considerable hit, with fewer consumers to target and more costs associated with targeting them.
Marketing messages could find themselves pushed into a slow-moving vacuum and silently suffocated (unless you pay your ISP for the privilege of visibility), while the customer you are trying to reach is also charged to even access them!
The incentive to enter the marketplace could all but fizzle out as smaller companies’ customers may have to actively battle through major publishers to find them, and we could see online start-ups closing their virtual doors before they’re fully open. It will undoubtedly dramatically reduce online diversity, inclusivity, and scale.
So Now What?
With waning hopes of congress writing laws protecting an open Internet, numerous states have signed executive orders to preserve net neutrality, and others are making their way through the legislative process to keep the rules in place. But the FCC basically threatened legal action against states that try to get around the repeal. Tech companies like Vimeo and Kickstarter have launched lawsuits against the FCC claiming the decision violates the Administrative Procedure Act because it is "arbitrary and capricious".
If The Congressional Review Act (a way to overrule the agency) released by the Senate in May went through, it would still need to be signed by President Donald Trump. So holding your breath (even if it was the biggest breath anybody had ever taken ever in the word ever)… wouldn’t be a smart strategy.
Currently, the UK’s net neutrality laws are in place. But it, too, could have a bumpy road ahead as Brexit will see the UK Government converting the EU Regulation on Open Internet Access into British law, at which time it could be upheld, amended, or even scrapped.
By its very nature, non-neutrality can destroy the competition we have all built our online businesses around and could portent a new online space that is exclusively dominated by top websites, costly, restrictive, and inaccessible.
And you thought GDPR was bad!