The ongoing debate over who controls the internet is more important to your business than you might think.
Net neutrality revolves around the basic idea that internet service providers should treat all internet traffic equally. It seems like a fairly fundamental principle, but your ISP does have the power behind the scenes to control your connection speed to different websites and online services.
Some ISPs already use this power to throttle peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic, but it’s open to much wider abuse.
Imagine if your ISP wanted to force you to use its cloud storage service. It could block access to competitors like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud and SkyDrive, perhaps asking you to pay more if you want to access these services.
Alternatively your ISP might simply throttle connection speeds to Dropbox and the others to the point where they became unusable, giving you no choice but to pay for the cloud storage service offered by your ISP.
Now imagine if your internet service provider discriminated against every online service in a similar way, from movie rentals and streaming music to internet banking and online backup services. As your gateway to the online world, your ISP would be able to completely dictate how you use the internet and where you spend your money. If every ISP behaved this way and net neutrality was lost, there’d be no escaping such anti-competitive behaviour.
In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has supported the idea of net neutrality for many years, but recent court cases threaten to limit its powers. The US Appeals Court ruled that the FCC lacks authority to force US mobile internet giant Verizon to abide by net neutrality rules, perhaps opening the door for a wave of anti-competitive changes from all major ISPs.
So how could this affect your business? The net neutrality debate could impact on you in two key ways.
Firstly, it could limit your choices when it comes to service providers. Secondly, it could stop potential customers from reaching you.
Let’s move this debate out into the physical world. At the moment we have the equivalent of net neutrality on the roads. The speed limit doesn’t change depending on whether you’re driving a Holden or a Ford. Roadblocks don’t pop up at every street corner depending on whether you’re behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Countach or a Toyota Corolla.
Imagine if they did. Imagine if you couldn’t drive to the local shopping centre to buy business supplies. Instead you could only make it as far as the expensive local corner shop, which was under no competitive pressure to drop prices because the owner knew you couldn’t shop elsewhere.
At the same time imagine that roadblocks at the end of your street started turning away most of your customers, directing them to your competitor over on the next block. Even if a few cars were let through, the queue would move so slowly that most people would give up and take their business elsewhere. Your business wouldn’t survive long.
Now imagine there was no one you could complain to about such practices because the courts had decided that these discriminatory road rules were totally legal. That it was perfectly acceptable for traffic police and car makers to abuse their power and restrict traffic to your business for their own gain.
Now you’ve got a taste of what business on the internet might look like if we abandon the concept of net neutrality. If you value a level playing field then you should value net neutrality.
David Hancock is the founder and managing director of Geeks2U, a national on-site computer repair and support company.