While the fate of repealing the current rules in America on net neutrality is hanging in the balance it has become fairly clear that the internet as we know it would change entirely.
Net Neutrality is essentially the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally. It is a principle that strongly reflects the values of free speech and is currently upheld in the UK. For a more in-depth description please follow this link.
With the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) voting in favour to repeal the current legislation the digital world could become a pay to play environment and businesses that are small or independent, as well as consumers that can’t afford the new rates, will likely be the ones suffering the most.
But what would the implications be for communications professionals and the world of PR, media, and comms?
Without net neutrality it is likely that only big media platforms will be able to afford the ‘fast lane,’ as they call it, leaving their smaller competitors in the dust. The same goes for major social networks and digital giants like Facebook and Twitter. Competitors that can’t keep up, or aren’t included in packages offered by internet service providers (ISPs), will lose out and when everything is said and done the internet will shrink in a big way.
And whilst it’s a US issue, there’s no doubt the impact would be felt here in Europe too. Media outlets will certainly be affected and those that form part of massive conglomerates are likely to benefit the most from the ISP’s abilities to filter news based on consumer data.
Consumers will start, for instance, to get their information from media outlets that have been chosen for them. Those media outlets that can’t afford to pay the tolls set by the ISPs, and even those that perhaps disagree politically or compete with other favoured organisations, have the potential of being blocked entirely, stifling marginal views and diversity. Internet users will no longer have control over what they use and consume online, giant media outlets will ultimately own the space.
As comms professionals, understanding the implications of a loss of net neutrality on digital campaigns is really important – and not just where ’earned media’ is a concerned, but where ‘owned media’ is concerned too.
At the moment, companies have their own website, social media, and digital presence where they can communicate directly to their audience through their owned channels. Never before have companies had more control over what messages they want to portray to their stakeholders. What happens then, when these owned channels are no longer accessible by their stakeholders? Will this mean the end of owned channels altogether, or will it simply plump the pot for network giants like Facebook?
The truth is that the line between the financial and political motivation of ISPs is likely to be a very thin one indeed - ultimately, the control over a brand’s message online will no longer be down to the brand, but to these ISPs.
How globally dynamic firms (such as those financial services firms in the Channel Islands and with US or Caribbean operations) communicate, particularly with their US audiences, is fast becoming an increasingly complex and important challenge.
While there remains a certain amount of uncertainty around what life would be like without net neutrality (although we could just take a look at Portugal), one thing is for certain - the way we use the internet and the way we communicate online and receive information will be impacted.
We will have to find new and creative ways to reach audiences limited by ISPs and the strategic thinking behind campaigns as well as external and internal comms will change. Repealing current net neutrality regulations could be one of the biggest issues facing PR and comms professionals in the coming years.