Though you may have heard the phrase “net neutrality” tossed about throughout the past few years or while browsing the Internet, last week’s FCC approval of its network neutrality plan has brought this phrase back to the realm of practical relevance for all Americans.  Net neutrality is the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content regardless of the source and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. The first thought that may come to mind as a small business owner is, why should I care about a small drop in the sea of regulatory rules created by a federal agency?  What quickly follows is the realization – I use the Internet and my business relies on it. The question then becomes, how does the FCC’s network neutrality plan affect me and my business?
What Net Neutrality Does
As a way of reassurance, individual consumers and small business owners will not likely notice a change from their current Internet service. The idea behind the FCC’s network neutrality plan was more to prevent what could have been, rather than to change the existing Internet framework. Currently, just about every person receives the same access to all lawful content on the open Internet through various ISPs. Almost always, providers stuck to this framework. In some cases, however,providers have prioritized their bandwidth to large companies such as YouTube, Netflix, or Hulu. This meant slower internet speeds for consumers browsing other content and for smaller businesses that did not pay the ISPs to prioritize their data.
The network neutrality plan implemented by the FCC prohibits this practice and purports to regulate the Internet as a public utility. This means that consumers have a public right to Internet access once they purchase it, and, much like with electricity and other public utilities, have the ability to complain to the FCC if they suspect abuse by their ISP.
What this Means for Small Businesses
In short, net neutrality means that large companies will not be able to prioritize access to their data over that of smaller businesses or other lawful web users who have not paid off ISPs for priority. By way of example, this ensures that your business’ website will be no less accessible than Wal-Mart’s or Microsoft’s and that all lawful content on the Internet receives equal bandwidth from ISPs. In addition, given the Internet’s status as a public utility, the plan also gives the FCC the regulatory power to punish ISPs who are “not acting in the public interest” such as price gouging for services or arbitrarily discriminating in providing their service to customers.
This plan is not without opposition, however, and the FCC is likely to be challenged on net neutrality by companies such as Verizon in the not so distant future. By no means is the continued “openness” of the Internet as an inherently equal public space a certainty, however, the FCC’s net neutrality plan is a step in the direction of assuring it stays that way.