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What Do FCC Talks of Net Neutrality Rollback Mean for Small Business?

Maddie Shepherd

Contributing Writer at Fundera
Maddie Shepherd is a former Fundera senior staff writer and current freelance writer. Maddie has an extensive knowledge of business credit cards, accounting tools, and merchant services, but specializes in small business financing advice. Maddie has a bachelor's degree in Spanish and Latin American cultures from Barnard College.
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Huge names in tech are chiming into the net neutrality hubbub with big statements. From visits to the Google app to your habitual Reddit check-in, your surfing might have been interrupted with pro-net neutrality banners and simulations.

Why are these big names making such noticeable statements?

To understand the motivations behind these bold moves, you have to understand what net neutrality is exactly. The concept has been thrown around a lot lately in the news, and it’s easy to write it off as something far off and inapplicable to your everyday life because of its techy title.

However, net neutrality affects your everyday life proportionate to how much you (and your business) rely on the internet. Which, as I’m guessing based on the very nature of how you’re accessing this article, is likely a pretty significant amount.

What is net neutrality?

Essentially, net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (or ISPs) must be required to provide equal access to all web content, regardless of the source or content of the site. So, in practice, net neutrality looks like your being able to access and load this article just as easily as you would be able to access a similar article by a huge, money-laden publication. Or even more possibly, your being able to load this article just as quickly as a similar one on a site that an ISP is invested in or partnered with.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is the government entity that oversees whether net neutrality is upheld or not. And, like most government entities since January, it’s been experiencing a shake-up that has the potential to really change the way you live your life and run your business.

Why is it in the news?

Since FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was appointed by President Trump in January, the former legal representative for Verizon has been vocal in his intentions to roll back Obama administration regulations that enforce net neutrality. These regulations currently classify the internet as a “public utility,” which means that the “common carrier” rules of the Communications Act of 1934 apply to it.

Or, as the ACLU puts it, the regulation “prohibits the owner of a network that holds itself out to all-comers from discriminating against information by halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of any data (except for legitimate network management purposes such as easing congestion or blocking spam).”

It’s important to note that these common carrier rules have applied to many public utilities far outdating the Internet, including telephone networks, railways, and even canal systems.

Under its new chairman, the FCC wants to roll back these regulations by undoing this classification of the internet as a public utility, therefore freeing it of the common carrier rules. They recently released a drafted bill detailing how they hope to do so.

Why do legislators oppose net neutrality?

Pai, and the FCC under his control, is looking to roll back these regulations because he thinks that this will end up “eliminating unnecessary regulatory burdens” and “promoting innovation across the communications industry,” according to CNN.

In fact, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), leader of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the FCC, almost immediately shifted to the topic of net neutrality in her opening remarks in a meeting Tuesday that was meant to address general agency oversight. Morning Consult reports she stated, “The commission’s decision in 2015 to reclassify the internet as a public utility was a power grab laced with the irony of suffocating the most innovative part of our economy with a 1930s era law.”

What is the other side saying?

Nonetheless, many within the net neutrality discourse disagree with Pai and Blackburn’s reasoning, not the least of which is Gigi Sohn, a counselor to Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman preceding Pai. She insists that “every single thing they’re doing is for incumbent telephone cable and media companies.” She added, “Pai wants to make the big bigger and the rich richer.”

Even though the rollbacks of these Obama-era regulations and to, as Sohn stated, “make the big bigger,” many already huge names in tech are actively protesting against the rollbacks that could benefit them drastically. On July 12th, a lengthy list of online brands that included names like Netflix, Twitter, and Airbnb participated in a “Day of Action” to protest FCC plans to dash net neutrality regulations.

Throughout the day, some participants interrupted their sites with pop-ups and loading wheels to simulate the effects that anti-net neutrality legislation might have. Other participants featured banners that motivated users to actively reach out and communicate a pro-net neutrality stance to the FCC. On the same day, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg updated his status with a note about supporting net neutrality.

These brands likely realize that they owe their now huge names to net neutrality. Remember, there was once a time when you had no idea what Netflix, Airbnb, or Vimeo was. Because of net neutrality, you were able to access them just as easily and as quickly as you were able to access massive corporate brands that might have been able to pay ISPs huge sums to speed up their site’s coverage. This is why, despite potentially being able to benefit from FCC’s plans to roll back net neutrality regulations, these now huge online companies took a “Day of Action” to speak out against these very rollbacks.

Can you participate in the debate?

Despite all of this high-profile activity to encourage users to express their disapproval of these rollbacks to the FCC, this effort might prove to be fruitless. As NPR reports, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly likened constituent feedback to reality show call-ins when he stated in a May meeting, “Thankfully, our rulemaking proceeding is not decided like a Dancing With the Stars contest, since counts of comments submitted have only so much value.”  He added that commenters, in order to be considered, would “need to provide evidence to support their arguments that the rules are or are not needed.”

Michael Chea, the general counsel of Vimeo, called O’Reilly’s approach to commenters’ feedback “insulting” and that this bar to consideration requires constituents to know jargonistic “magic words.” Essentially, O’Reilly’s approach blocks supposed laypeople who the laws will ultimately affect the most from contributing to formal deliberations.

Recently, the FCC has invited big names in tech to contribute to the conversation through formal testimony. The chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee invited executives from a long list of tech influencers including Google, Facebook, and Netflix to a September 7th meeting to testify in the debate on net neutrality. There’s no word as of yet who will attend, but the overlap between the participants of the July “Day of Action” and the invite list doesn’t look promising for Pai and his anti-neutrality FCC members.

How does this affect small business?

So, as a small business owner who legislators might consider one of the many laypeople without the knowledge to contribute to legal deliberations on net neutrality, why should you care?

As stated in the beginning of this article, this debate is as pressing to your small business proportionate to how much it relies on the internet. But whether your business solely relies on the internet for day-to-day functions like data storage or communication, or your business gains a majority of its business from online marketing, rollbacks to net neutrality regulations are going to cost you in some form or fashion.

Though comments to the FCC closed July 17th, responses to comments remain open until August 16th. Check out the filing results on the FCC website to see what other constituents have to say, and enter into conversation with any commenters who might support rollbacks of net neutrality regulations.

Express your concern as a small business owner, and, though I hate to say it, feel free to use as many “magic words” as you can.

Maddie Shepherd

Contributing Writer at Fundera
Maddie Shepherd is a former Fundera senior staff writer and current freelance writer. Maddie has an extensive knowledge of business credit cards, accounting tools, and merchant services, but specializes in small business financing advice. Maddie has a bachelor's degree in Spanish and Latin American cultures from Barnard College.

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