Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past couple of months, you’re aware that the rules of net neutrality are set to be reconsidered on December 14. There are calls for the vote to be delayed due to potential fraud in the comments that were solicited by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but The Hill has reported that the FCC will hold the vote, anyway.
Net neutrality is a hot button political issue, but we don’t blog about those: We write about promoting your law firm online.
However, if the FCC votes to change the rules of net neutrality, your website will be impacted. In short, if you’re a massive law firm with a massive budget, you can throw money at the problem and use the changes to promote your firm online even more. If you’re a small firm, though, it’ll be an even more uphill battle.
What Is Net Neutrality?
There’s no sense reinventing the wheel: Many websites have very helpful videos that explain net neutrality quickly and simply. We’ll include one, below.
However, there are some basics that sometimes get glossed over, but which are helpful to know. Chiefly, you can divide the players into three groups:
- Consumers who use the internet to visit websites (in reading this blog right now, you – in your personal capacity – are a consumer);
- Businesses who put websites on the internet, regardless of whether it’s for a profit or not (like Myers Freelance and maybe even your law firm); and
- Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who provide the materials and capital, like broadband cables and internet satellites, that consumers and businesses need in order to interact with each other online (like Comcast or Time Warner, which was rebranded as Charter Spectrum to distance themselves from the terrible service and internet speeds they were famous for).
In essence, ISPs want to use their power over the flow of information between businesses and consumers to make more money. However, the FCC’s rules prevented this by enforcing the concept of net neutrality: Legally, ISPs are common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 and § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The upcoming net neutrality vote on December 14 is where the FCC will decide whether to reclassify ISPs. The five board members are expected to vote along party lines, with the three Republicans winning the vote, legally reclassifying ISPs and ending net neutrality.
The Impact of Net Neutrality’s Demise on the Internet
Once ISPs get the power to control what goes through their cables, the consensus prediction is that they’ll create chokepoints on both ends:
- If a business wants consumers to see its website hassle-free, that business is going to have to pay more; and
- If a consumer wants to use certain parts of the internet, they’ll have to pay more.
An example of the chokepoint on the business’ end has looked like this: Comcast severely limits its customers’ internet speed when they visit Netflix so that Comcast can extort a “tax” from Netflix in order to keep their customers (this happened, back in 2014).
An example of the chokepoint on the consumer’s end looks like this: Verizon provides its customers Yahoo! Search for free – Verizon, after all, owns Yahoo! – but charges an additional fee for people to use Google.
Net Neutrality and Your Law Firm’s Website
Both of these chokepoints will likely impact your law firm’s website. However, the exact details depend on how ISPs utilize their newfound power over the internet.
Allowing ISPs to only provide parts of the internet based on how much money a customer pays would be devastating to your site, if it is outside the permitted portion of the web. Of course, this is currently only a hypothetical danger, but the realities of it are only subject to an ISP’s payment structure: If Comcast chooses to give its customers free access to the internet, but pay a dollar every time they load a new page, your online marketing strategies would need to develop significantly. However, if Time Warner/Spectrum only charges extra for its customers to play videos or use social media, any changes you make to your marketing techniques will likely be in a completely different direction.
On the other hand, allowing ISPs to extort fees from businesses is a simple and very real threat because Comcast has already done it to Netflix. Of course, Comcast tried squeezing Netflix because Netflix is a very popular online video streaming service, and streaming videos puts far more strain on an ISP’s property. However, without net neutrality rules to prevent them from maximizing their profits, ISPs will likely give preferential treatment – in the form of higher internet speeds – to sites they either own, like Verizon’s Yahoo! Search, or to sites that pay for it. Suddenly, you could find another new bill on your law firm’s table for having a website: One that requires a monthly payment to an ISP to take your website out of the “slow lane” and let consumers and potential clients view it without waiting minutes for it to load.
In short, if the FCC changes its rules and ends net neutrality, ISPs will have the power to make decisions about what people can access on the internet. Those decisions are going to drastically impact how you can best market your law firm online. Not only will the change in planning cost time and money, the ISPs decisions will almost certainly include a part where website owners, like your law firm, will have to make a choice: Either pay a fee, or have your site load slowly to anyone who wants to see it.