There’s a fierce battle brewing that might well change the internet as we’ve always known it. The combatants: ISPs, who are now on the verge of gaining unprecedented power; and publishers, advertisers, and, ultimately, users, who don’t want to lose the power they’ve got. The prize is the future of net neutrality, a two-year-old regulation and internet philosophy that ISPs would love to bury. Meanwhile, nearly everyone else in the digital universe is fighting to keep net neutrality alive.
The net neutrality rules enacted in 2015 prevented broadband providers from blocking specific websites or charging users for content—so players like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T were not permitted to show favouritism to any one website or publisher. The rule enabled internet users, content providers, and users to freely search the web for cost-free content.
Is the open internet over?
Last month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal the net neutrality rules. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called them “heavy-handed regulations,” and criticised the previous administration for “micromanaging the internet.” The repeal reflects the Trump administration’s viewpoint that less federal oversight will yield more innovation and a stronger economy.
Prior to the vote, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, along with many other World Wide Web pioneers, urged the FCC to cancel the vote. They argued unsuccessfully that the internet was created to be open and free, and that “the FCC’s proposed Order is based on a flawed and factually inaccurate understanding of internet technology.”
Smashing the ad tech ecosystem
With its potential to negatively affect advertisers, the impact of this change could be monumental. Since ISPs will now be able to throttle speeds, they can also unbalance the ad tech ecosystem by inflating prices for publishers who pay more, and depreciating prices for those who can't afford to pay. The result could see ISPs drive ad spend to specific inventories, strangling the revenue models of smaller publishers or even advertisers with smaller budgets. Publishers could potentially be forced to pay for premium paid packages just to make their content accessible.
As a consequence, the internet could become available only to those who can afford it. It could evolve into an exchange in which only the content providers driving high traffic will have the resources to deliver premium services—thus becoming the only ones able to reach the demographically desirable consumers who pay for premium content. Companies like Mozilla have expressed these concerns, telling The New York Times that the new FCC regulations could force internet entrepreneurs to pay for “packages” that would guarantee faster internet service for their content. This type of model moves away from one of the core values of the internet: free and open access for all.
More power to the telcos
Pai’s argument is that companies like Google and Twitter have been favouring publishers by ranking content however they choose via technology like Google AMP. “Many thrive on the business model of charging to place content in front of eyeballs—what else is Accelerated Mobile Pages or Promoted Tweets but prioritisation?” Pai said. “What is worse is there is no transparency into how decisions that appear inconsistent with an open internet are made.” (On the other side, technologists argue that AMP is an open source code, easily implemented by anyone with the right expertise.)
The rollback of net neutrality is lending tremendous power to telecom operators. They already control the pipes, and could now control content as well, which could tremendously impact the publishing industry. Vertical mergers—like the controversial AT&T–Time Warner merger—could create an anticompetitive environment hugely detrimental to the quality, transparency, and impartiality of published content. Essentially, if ISPs control content, they could decide to allow preferential treatment for their own channels and content.
“With telcos and ISPs controlling both the content and the method of distribution, there is little incentive or desire for new publishers, because their content could be harder to access compared to established publishers,” said Jeff Finch, Chief Product Officer at Choozle.
Fighting off the gatekeepers
The unbalance will also affect the ad industry, since the internet previously offered advertisers a complex tracking system that was leveraged to follow audiences as they move across a vast network of websites. If broadband providers decide to throttle speeds and upend this ecosystem—whether by controlling the speed of certain websites or limiting access via “packages”—the negative impact on advertisers could be immense. Their ads would become less relevant (and less effective). And because they could guarantee more targeted ads on their individual platforms, web giants like Facebook could increase their ad prices.
“Internet access is a utility—just like water and electricity,” said Xavier Becerra, attorney general in California. “And every consumer has a right to access online content without interference or manipulation by their internet service provider.”
Most recently, Reuters reported that twenty-one attorneys general filed lawsuits in an attempt to reverse the net neutrality repeal, stating that it was “arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion,” not to mention a violation of federal law. Eric T. Schneiderman, attorney general of New York, was among the state officials joining the suit. “The repeal of net neutrality would turn internet service providers into gatekeepers,” he said, “allowing them to put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online.”
An unknown future
The Senate currently has the backing of 50 out of 100 members, leaving the lawmakers just one vote shy of the majority vote needed to overturn the net neutrality repeal. This might sound promising to opponents of the repeal. However, even if a vote to reverse the FCC’s decision won a majority vote in the Senate, the House of Representatives would need a majority vote as well, which is unlikely given that Republicans are in the majority. And if the majority of the House of Representative should somehow support an overturn, the President could veto that decision, and no doubt would.
With the new administration and the ISPs on one side fighting to repeal net neutrality, and twenty-one individual states and powerhouses like Google and Netflix on the other side fighting for net neutrality, the outcome may determine the future direction of the internet. The world of internet publishers, advertisers, and consumers is waiting to see how this intense battle plays out.
Alexian Chiavegato is the Vice President of Marketing at Marfeel
Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock