Why publishers should be taking action on net neutrality
The repeal of net neutrality rules is set to take effect next week. Contributor Andy Evans believes independent publishers will suffer a blow and offers tips on what they can do in response.
The legal and political debate around net neutrality rages on following the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to repeal rules established in 2015. That repeal, which passed on a party-line vote in December, is set to take effect on April 23.
Individual US states are making efforts to counter the repeal, with Washington the first state to introduce laws preventing internet service providers (ISPs) slowing down or blocking online content. Many other states, including California, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii and Vermont, are also taking action to preserve net neutrality.
The FCC believes it has the authority to oversee internet services because internet data crosses state lines, and last year’s ruling attempted to prevent states setting their own laws, but it is unclear whether it will stand up in court.
Various trade groups are also wading into the debate. The Internet Association (IA), which represents the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Etsy and Airbnb, wrote a letter to the Senate supporting legislation to “restore strong, enforceable net neutrality protections at the federal level.” At the same time, the American Cable Association (ACA), which represents various ISPs, backs the repeal of net neutrality rules, even filing a motion to intervene in an ongoing legal battle in support of the FCC.
Amidst all the politics, it’s easy to lose sight of the real issues behind net neutrality, so what will the impact be on publishers if the FCC repeals the Open Internet Order as planned on April 23, and what action can they take to prepare for this eventuality?
Partiality enters the publishing space
Net neutrality ensures consumers get equal and neutral access to the entire web through their chosen provider. It prevents ISPs from blocking access to certain content or charging publishers to deliver their content faster.
If net neutrality rules are repealed, ISPs will have the power to slow down some websites and speed up others, either because they own them or because they have been paid to do so. The result is likely to be an internet split into fast lanes for publishers who can afford to pay and inferior low-traffic lanes for the rest.
ISPs will also be able to charge consumers for different types of content, as cable TV providers do now. They may bundle the content of certain publishers as part of their offering — so consumers won’t have to pay extra to access it or it won’t count against mobile data plans — while charging for access to everything else.
This discriminatory behavior could be catastrophic for smaller independent publishers who won’t have the means to pay ISPs for preferential treatment and may see visitor levels and associated revenues plummet. It will also be disastrous for free speech and the open exchange of ideas for which the internet was designed.
Imagine, for example, if a particular ISP offered free, speedy access to one major news brand as part of its internet bundle, with consumers having to pay extra for slower access to other news sources. The ISP’s customers would naturally be more inclined to consume content from that single news brand, giving it an excessive degree of influence.
With 129 million Americans limited to a single choice of broadband ISP, the handful of publishers that can afford to cut deals with providers will quickly gain a monopoly.
Publishers can take matters into their own hands
One way publishers can take action is to write to or call congressional representatives and senators, showing they support net neutrality. There is still a small chance Congress could overrule the FCC using the Congressional Review Act.
The website Battle for the Net makes this process easy, providing emails, phone numbers and sample scripts. It also gives information about pro-net neutrality protests, or meetings with representatives, that are taking place across the country. Independent publishers may feel their voices are too small to be heard, but by joining a larger collaborative movement, they can still make a difference.
There are also steps publishers can take to prepare for the repeal of net neutrality, and the first is to maintain or increase content standards. Consumers access niche websites because they are interested in the content and find it meaningful to their current life stage. High-quality content that speaks to particular life or work interests, created by passionate, enthusiastic experts, will always be attractive to specific audiences. The end of net neutrality may make it harder for consumers to access this type of content, but if it is truly valuable to them, they may be prepared to go the extra mile.
The second step is to make websites lightweight and fast-loading to reduce the negative impact of potential bandwidth throttling. This means reducing ad clutter (which is a positive thing for many other reasons, too), perhaps just having one or two ads per page. As long as these ads are highly relevant to the on-page content and are well placed — ideally, loading in-view at the end of an article rather than at the top — they can generate as much revenue as several lesser-value ads crammed onto the page, if not more.
Repeal of net neutrality laws is a major concern for any publisher who can’t pay ISPs for preferential treatment. Now is the time to rally against the FCC’s decision, while at the same time preparing for the advent of an internet that is no longer a level playing field where content can be created, accessed, shared and consumed equally by all.