5 minute read

No doubt the words “net neutrality” have been on your radar for months now. The topic has been in the news since the Federal Communications Commission voted last December to repeal the 2015 net neutrality regulations, which prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic to specific websites and banned them from offering internet “fast lanes” to companies willing to pay extra to reach consumers more quickly.

Recently, the Senate voted to reinstate the Obama-era open-internet rules, handing a symbolic defeat to the Trump administration, which wants to roll back those regulations. But the measure still faces an uphill battle of getting passed in the House—and even if it does, many believe President Trump would veto the reinstatement measure it if reached his desk.

Feeling a little confused about what all the hoopla’s about? You’re not alone. Let’s look at a few of the most common questions regarding this emotionally charged topic and how it pertains to you and your nonprofit.

What exactly is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is based the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. It’s a series of regulations, established during the Obama administration, that were designed to ensure that the internet is open and free. This basically means that internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast or Verizon are not allowed to slow down specific sites or charge companies for preferential treatment for internet access. It also means companies like AT&T, which is trying to buy Time Warner, or Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, can’t favor their own content over a competitor’s.

What happened to it last December?

The FCC voted in a 3-2 decision to repeal the net neutrality legislation. Opponents of net neutrality say it’s an overextension of government regulation—that the internet doesn’t need federal governance to function fairly. Instead, the FCC board says that if there is a violation, those violations can go to the FTC.

And what does that mean?

Think of it like cops vs. courts. The FCC are the cops that prevent crime from happening whereas the FTC, or Federal Trade Commission, is like a court that steps in after a crime has been committed. The FTC can go after companies that violate contracts with consumers or that participate in anticompetitive and fraudulent activity. But the FTC already oversees consumer protection and competition for the whole economy. They’re already swamped. And because the agency is not focused exclusively on the telecommunications industry, they probably won’t scrutinize like the FCC would. Also, the FTC lacks the FCC’s ability to make rules.

Then is net neutrality completely dead now?

Not quite. There’s that Senate vote mentioned above that’s trying to overrule the FCC’s decision to kill it. And key parts of the proposal still need a vote by the Office of Management and Budget in order to go into effect. The FCC says it will issue another order making it official when the OMB gives the green light.

What do the supporters of net neutrality say about this?

They view repealing net neutrality regulations as a move that undermines innovation, making it harder for startups, younger companies and, yes, nonprofits to compete with existing corporations and big budgets that can afford to cover the costs for preferential treatment from ISPs. As TechCrunch put it, removing net neutrality regulations means, “any organization without deep enough pockets to pay an ISP’s ransom will load much slower than those with ties to ISPs.”

What’s it all mean for me?

Personally, it could affect how you experience the internet. Probably not right away. But over time, it could change significantly. The people in favor of repealing net neutrality are hopeful that it will lead to more expansion in rural areas as well as faster-speed service throughout the U.S. But those against it believe it will lead to broadband companies controlling more of your internet experience. Ultimately, it could mean that having internet service is more like having cable TV, where all the content is curated by your provider. And groups like the American Civil Liberties Union say it could affect your First Amendment right to free speech as big companies are able to control more of what you experience online.

As for your nonprofit, well, it could mean that unless you “pay to play” (i.e., fork over some cash to ISPs), your website could technically load slower than those who are willing and able to pay for a faster internet highway.

What’s next?

A lot, actually. The fight is not even close to being over. Net neutrality supporters have filed lawsuits to reinstate the old rules, including several tech companies like Mozilla, Kickstarter, Foursquare and Etsy, as well as several state attorney generals. More than two dozen states, including New York, Connecticut, California and Maryland, are working on legislation to reinstate net neutrality rules within their borders. Washington has already become the first state to sign such legislation into law. Governors in a handful of states, including New Jersey and Montana, have signed executive orders requiring ISPs that operate with the state to adhere to net neutrality principles.

Also, remember this: Even if net neutrality dies and ISPs can charge for preferential internet access, it doesn’t mean they will. For instance, Comcast Senior Executive VP David Cohen wrote in a blog post, “Comcast customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open internet today, tomorrow and in the future. Period.”

Is there anything I should do now?

Stay informed. Keep up on what’s happening with net neutrality and monitor the changing environment so you aren’t taken by surprise or caught off guard if anything significant changes. If you feel strongly one way or another, let your voice be heard with letters, emails or, better yet, phone calls to the appropriate government officials. Learn what, if anything, is being done at your state’s level in regard to net neutrality legislation.

And don’t panic. Focus on the things you can control and be sure you’re optimizing every way possible to build and manage an online presence that engages your constituents and online audience effectively and efficiently.

At Firespring, we’re committed to helping you do everything in our power to create an online presence that helps you raise more money, grow awareness and accomplish your mission, regardless of what’s happening at the government level. We’d love to invite you to learn more when you request a free demo at what we can do for your organization.