Why losing net neutrality is bad for consumers, the economy, innovation, and public relations

January 20, 2014
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The most under-reported story so far in 2014 is the one that could throttle our country’s greatest innovation engine and deaden future opportunities for American consumers, entrepreneurs, workers, and those of us in the communications business. When a federal appeals court recently overturned our long-standing assumption of the Internet as a fair and open place for ideas, sharing, and commerce, it set in motion a number of disturbing possibilities that could become reality if Congress doesn’t act to establish the authority of the FCC to keep the Internet neutral.

Granted the issue is complex. Until now, Internet service providers — such as Time Warner, Verizon, and Comcast — were required to treat all Internet traffic the same and price it accordingly. So regardless of content — whether it was an email from Aunt Millie or an episode of “Breaking Bad” — providers couldn’t charge more even if you or your content source were bandwidth hogs, like Netflix or Pandora.

The court’s decision seemingly sides with free enterprise and its right to set prices according to usage and demand. But it actually allows cable companies to insidiously tilt the world in their favor. For instance, penalizing Amazon and its users with higher costs, while allowing their own streaming media interests to operate with lower costs or faster download speeds.

That’s bad for consumers. And it’s bad for American innovation. For many entrepreneurs, the Internet has become the great equalizer, a place where anyone can compete against the biggest and best financed companies on the planet — simply by going online.

Netflix itself is a prime example. By streaming rental movies, and now its own content, Netflix has forever disrupted the cable TV model, practically assuring that anyone under age 25 will never buy cable TV. This transformative gain could not have happened if Verizon, Cox, Comcast, and others had throttled Netflix early in the game, crushing it with increased fees or slow, stuttering downloads.

It’s also bad for the public relations industry. By thwarting startups, the ruling undermines our industry’s most vibrant source of new accounts — Davids who use public relations to take on the Goliaths and see it as a more efficient way to leverage hard-to-come-by, early investment dollars.

More chilling, however, is how a non-neutral Internet could deny us the very tools we now rely on to serve our clients. Content is the killer app of public relations, and that content now comes in every imaginable form and format. Cheap, omnipotent delivery is critical to our ability to serve clients in a viral world, where a particularly creative take can generate millions of views, shares, and retweets.

It’s all been made possible by the availability of cheap bandwidth where costs are shared by all users — like that of a public utility. Take away an open and fair Internet and you open the door to restricting our very craft. Let’s hope that’s not a likely possibility and Congress steps in to keep the Internet open and fair, keeping innovation rolling and public relations at its current status as an integral part of the great game of business.

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