Viewpoint: No Neutral Ground

  • Wednesday, December 6th, 2017
  • Author: Tim Maytom
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I’ve been covering the world of digital marketing for less than five years, but even in my brief time, the industry has seen several events that have been trumpeted as existential threats to marketers’ way of life. Google’s ‘Mobilepocalypse’. The rise of ad blocking. The death of the cookie. The brand safety panic. The approach of GDPR.

In the end, all of these storms have been weathered with relatively little disruption to business-as-usual. They have even helped drive effectiveness and efficiency in the industry, pushing marketers and ad tech providers to embrace new ways of thinking. However, there is one major problem that could, over time, completely change the way the digital landscape looks. And not only are marketers failing to address it, some firms in the industry are actually pushing for it to happen: the death of net neutrality.

Net neutrality is the principle that every bit of information that travels through the internet should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs). Whether it’s text, pictures, video, music or something else, a gigabyte of data is a gigabyte of data, and regardless of where it came from or where it’s going to, it should travel at the same speed.

The principles of net neutrality have been affirmed by many of the architects of the early internet, and by firms around the globe. Companies including Google, Facebook and Netflix have come out in favour of strong protections for net neutrality, and many countries have already enshrined it into law in some form or another.

In fact, pretty much the only people who seem to be worried about net neutrality are internet service providers and mobile networks – the firms that have to honour the commitment to treat all traffic equally.

According to ISPs, net neutrality robs firms of anything to differentiate them from their competition, beyond faster speeds or higher bandwidth caps. It prevents innovation and locks companies into a spiral where all they can do is attempt to keep up with each other when it comes to improving the net’s basic infrastructure.

While that may sound reasonable – after all, the tech world is built on innovative solutions that step outside proven ways of doing things – it’s worth looking at what weak net neutrality looks like in practice. In countries like Portugal and New Zealand, where net neutrality has no legal protections, mobile carriers and ISPs are breaking down their data offerings into packages, where customers can pay less and only access certain services, like messaging apps, email or social media (and of course, the carriers’ own services).

So far, most ISPs and networks still offer traditional data plans alongside these packages, but there’s nothing to stop them from making only this chopped-up version of the internet available. In such a landscape, ISPs and networks could force firms like Facebook, Google, Snapchat and others to pay in order to be included in packages, or risk having their services slowed down or even made inaccessible.

Such cut-throat business practices might seem outlandish, but they have already seen put into practice. Before net neutrality was made a law in the US in 2015, Comcast and Verizon famously strangled Netflix’s data on their networks, making the video streaming service hard for customers to use effectively, until Netflix stumped up cash for ‘paid prioritisation’ to take its data speeds back up to normal.

The impact of net neutrality varies widely from market to market. In the UK, where there is a decent selection of internet providers, regardless of where you live, the issue is largely a theoretical one. With enough competition, ISPs can’t risk losing customers by limiting what they can access. In the US, much of the population has little choice over broadband provider. Local-scale monopolies are backed up with legal enforcement, and around 75 per cent of the country gets its internet from one of two providers. This limited market gives ISPs much more power, and makes the protection of net neutrality principles in law much more important.

However, recent developments in the US have worried many advocates for strong net neutrality. While President Obama had been a firm proponent of net neutrality, President Trump has not followed up on his legacy, and appointed Ajit Pai, a noted critic of net neutrality, as the chairman of Federal Communications Commission. Since taking the chairmanship, Pai has spearheaded efforts to roll back net neutrality protections.

His main thrust is to repeal the laws put in place in 2015 that reclassified wireless and fixed-line broadband providers as ‘common carriers’, or public utilities that the FCC can regulate closely. According to Pai, strong net neutrality protections give authoritarian states an excuse to clamp down on online freedoms, and introduce legislation to address problems that are, so far, hypothetical. But we already know that these problems aren’t hypothetical, and have a real impact on both digital firms and consumers.

Pai’s FCC has been one of the few successful elements of the Trump administration when it comes to getting legislation passed, and over the past year, he has helped roll back a number of longstanding rules limiting monopolies in media and communications firms. With the unveiling of Restoring Internet Freedom, a 210-page document outlining the Commission’s plans for the digital world, Pai has taken clear aim at net neutrality as his next target.

With a vote expected in the next month, marketers need to add their voices to the choir of those calling for the FCC to abandon its plans, and keep net neutrality in place. An internet without protections could strangle innovation, prevent engaging ad formats from functioning for consumers, and establish new walled gardens that make it even harder to reach audiences at scale. It could splinter the digital landscape into a series of smaller ecosystems, all dominated by a single player, and make it almost impossible for smaller companies to compete.

Deregulation is a slipperly slope, and once laws are stripped back, the power that larger firms can establish can make it impossible to reverse. With net neutrality only just enshrined in law in the US, it’s time to meet its first big challenge with a full-throated defence, and ensure a future when the internet belongs to everyone, not just a few.