hether they’re software startups or direct-to-consumer services, online businesses are currently revolutionizing the economy. Women entrepreneurs like us are at the forefront of a new movement that’s redefining value and disrupting a lot of the old ways of doing business.
For many of us, the Internet has been the ultimate tool to self-empowerment. Maybe we’ve used it to distribute an e-book, teach a course, or sell programs and products. Online, we’ve learned to present
ourselves as well as or better than the biggest corporations out there, leveraging the strength of our peer-to-peer networks to find our people anywhere in the world.
Enter the Net Neutrality debate in the United States. In the ongoing push and pull between progressive and conservative, the question of whether companies should be able to pay more for data “fast lanes” rages on.
President Trump’s new appointee to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threatens to roll back protections made under Obama, meaning we might soon be looking at a very different internet, though no one can predict exactly what would happen.
What exactly are these changes all about and why are they so hotly contested? What would deregulation really mean for those of us who rely on the Internet to run our businesses and find our people? Ahead, everything you need to know to wrap your head around this tricky situation.
What we’re arguing over is an ideological principle. “Net Neutrality” is a concept referring to the original design of the Internet, which was as an open network where any traffic from one place to another (from end to end) is allowed to move equally fast, like a freeway with no paid express lanes. This is why your YouTube video is allowed to stream as fast as the newest episode of NCIS. Some argue it’s exactly this level playing field of access which has supported the online business boon and the rise of the twenty-first century entrepreneur.
Net Neutrality’s big competitor is the ideal of the free market, which holds that the exchange of goods, services and money should be totally unrestrained by government rules and regulations. And now that large corporations have major online interests, they would like the option to invest their capital into the creation of paid “fast lanes,” which would prioritize their content. This would make the Internet more like the real world. You don’t find too many small jewelry designers at the mall, but you do find them on Etsy.
The FCC is an independent agency created by Congress in 1934. It began by taking over the Federal Radio Commission and gained oversight of all subsequent communications technologies like phone, cable and satellite. The agency is funded entirely by regulatory fees, bringing in $338 million a year and paying 1720 employees. This means corporations, not tax payers, shoulder the burden. Generally, conservatives don’t believe the Internet should be regulated at all, so they don’t like the existence of the FCC. Meanwhile liberals warn that without regulation, opportunity becomes unfairly concentrated and monopoly ensues.
The main lobbying force against Net Neutrality has been the giant telecom providers such as Verizon and Comcast. These corporations stand to benefit most from deregulation, because they would be the ones selling access to fast lanes to companies like Disney, Google or Netflix, thereby becoming the gatekeepers of the Internet and increasing their profits. These interests argue that there’s always been a relationship between content owners and network operators, so why should the Internet have special treatment?
Ever since a Columbia law professor coined the term in 2002, Silicon Valley has led the campaign to protect Net Neutrality. In 2014 when the FCC’s proposal to allow fast lanes came up for public comment, almost every major tech company spoke up—Amazon, Skype, Google etc. Net Neutrality advocates refer to deregulation as “Net Discrimination” and believe that when the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have to make deals with service providers to launch their product, innovation and entrepreneurship suffers. Further, service providers have competitive interests—they all own telephone companies, so they might be tempted to discriminate against Skype or Google.
Since the FCC Chair is not elected but selected by the President, it’s no surprise we’ve been going back and forth on this for a while now. During the Obama years, Net Neutrality prevailed. His first FCC Chair imposed new rules preventing censorship and requiring cable providers to be more transparent, which were immediately contested in court by Verizon. Then in 2015 after a lengthy debate with a Republican Congress, the FCC voted to keep Net Neutrality laws in place and in fact strengthen its ability to regulate. Now that Trump has taken office, his new FCC Chair Ajit Pai is committed to “taking a weed whacker to Net Neutrality.” Meanwhile, Congress is working to pass bills that will undermine the FCC’s rules, bypassing the process of overturning them anyway.
One bedrock element of the Net Neutrality debate centers around whether the internet service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, should be regulated like public utilities or information services. Public utilities, like phone lines, are something the government ensures for all Americans, so they are subject to way more rules. Meanwhile information services like Facebook and AOL, which allow people to interact on the internet, are completely exempt from regulations. An important aspect of the 2015 decision on Net Neutrality was to re-classify internet providers, providing a stronger foundation for the FCC to enforce rules. This legislation will be the most difficult to overturn, requiring substantial proof of its failure.
The reversal of Net Neutrality protections will allow the corporate service providers to hold a bigger piece of the online real estate, meaning there’s the potential for new entrepreneurs to get priced out of the content market. Critics of Net Neutrality however, warn that regulation might do more harm than good, discouraging investment in internet infrastructure on the part of the Comcasts and in fact, ultimately overloading the system. Some also argue that the big service providers have no interest in “breaking the internet,” and would price things reasonably so as to maintain a low barrier to entry.
Now’s the time to get engaged. Do you believe the Internet should stay neutral, because it provides an important benefit to society? Or do you believe the market will ultimately create the best opportunities for all? We suggest you get clear on your political consciousness and keep your eyes and mind open. Understand both sides so you can engage in compassionate, effective discussion. The world needs empathy right now and women leaders have it in spades, so never be afraid to speak up. And you can start here—we’d love to hear your thoughts on this timely issue in the comments.