Like practically every topic of discussion on the internet, net neutrality is a subject that people either a) haven’t heard of and couldn’t care less about, or b) are rabidly passionate about and will die to defend (or so it seems in most site comment sections). But what is net neutrality anyway, and why should marketers care?

What is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) should allow all types of traffic to travel across their networks without discrimination; that all sites and applications should be treated equally, and not subjected to traffic shaping, bandwidth throttling and other means of control that serve ISPs’ commercial interests.

Here are five facts that marketers need to know about net neutrality and why it’s so important:

1. Net Neutrality is Information Freedom.

Imagine a world in which internet service providers didn’t just provide their customers with access to the web, but also controlled what pages they could see, what articles they could read, and what videos they could watch. This isn’t the bleak world envisioned in George Orwell’s disturbingly prescient “1984” – this is a world without net neutrality.

If net neutrality laws are not passed to protect the free and open web, ISPs like Comcast (which was recently named “The Worst Business in America” for the second time by The Consumerist) would effectively become arbiters of what you – and your customers – can see, when you can see it, and how much extra you’ll be expected to pony up to see it.

Unless neutrality laws are introduced, internet subscription packages could soon look a lot like this:

Unless the web remains free and open, the flow of information will no longer be democratic – it will be controlled, repackaged and sold at a premium, the way cable channels are today.

2. Net Neutrality is Consumer Choice

Let’s say you run a small business. You have a great product, satisfied customers, and you’re ready to grow by getting into paid search. You launch a PPC campaign, target high commercial intent keywords, write compelling ads, and have these ads point at highly optimized landing pages. Awesome!

…Until your prospective customers click on your ad and their ISP throttles bandwidth to your landing pages because you can’t afford to bribe their ISP enter into a “preferential service agreement.” Your landing pages take forever to load, and your conversion rates plummet. You’ve wasted time, money and effort – all because your larger competitors can afford sleazy backhanders.

Net neutrality is essential to consumer choice. If ISPs get to choose which sites are seen and when, millions of businesses – large and small alike – will suffer, and so will consumers.

Unless the web remains free and open, consumers will have one choice – their ISP’s.

3. Net Neutrality is a Level Playing Field

Content marketing has enabled businesses of all sizes to provide their customers with highly relevant content tailored to meet specific needs, and the open web has allowed countless bloggers to build huge audiences by sharing content that they’re passionate about. This will be impossible if ISPs and large telcos get their way.

The preferential treatment that ISPs could (and would) charge for will tip the scale in favor of huge media companies that can afford to pay for unrestricted access and screw over everyone else. What about family-owned businesses that run great blogs and rely on quality content as a marketing tool? What about startups that have built large audiences through niche content and specialized knowledge? What about the blogs that break the news stories mainstream media outlets are afraid to touch because they’re owned by the same conglomerates as the ISPs? Nope, nope and nope. Oh, and forget about video marketing – unless you have bottomless coffers to pay the gatekeepers, it’s not going to happen.

Unless the web remains free and open, content marketing as we know it will be finished.

4. Net Neutrality is Innovation

Many of Silicon Valley’s biggest players have humble beginnings. Internet marketing’s largest (and most profitable) advertising platforms, including Google and Facebook, were highly innovative ideas that the open internet helped grow and propagate. Without net neutrality, these and countless other technological success stories would likely never have materialized.

In addition to stifling innovation, the end of net neutrality would limit how marketing channels could evolve over time, limiting advertisers’ reach and making it increasingly difficult for marketers to adapt to changing consumer behavior. Of course, some of the major players could capitalize on these “new” discriminatory business models (a point ISP lobbyists have been pushing hard in Washington), but what about the little guys? Not so much.

Unless the web remains free and open, true innovation will slow to a crawl, costing businesses and the overall economy billions of dollars, and further tip the balance of power in favor of the ISPs.

5. Net Neutrality is Already in Danger

For many marketers, net neutrality isn’t even an issue, let alone a problem deserving of real action or support. However, the free and open web is already under threat, and has been for years:

  • In 2007, evidence came to light that Comcast was interfering with customers’ use of BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services – whether for legal purposes or otherwise.
  • Between 2007 and 2011, Canadian ISP Rogers engaged in discriminatory traffic shaping practices by reducing speeds of all encrypted traffic – including online gaming and other perfectly legal services.
  • In January, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Communications Commission had overstepped its authority in banning ISPs from throttling traffic as part of its proposed Open Internet Order – a severe blow to net neutrality.
  • In February, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast an undisclosed sum to ensure that its streaming video content reaches consumers more quickly after months of being throttled – paving the way for similar deals.
  • In February – a very bad month for net neutrality – Comcast (the country’s largest cable and internet provider) announced plans it wants to merge with Time Warner Cable (the country’s second-largest). This proposed merger would create a towering monopolistic behemoth, the likes of which have never been seen, further consolidating Comcast’s considerable power and severely reducing consumer choice.

Make no mistake – the war for information freedom is being waged as we speak. Unless action is taken, we’re one step closer to a future in which the mighty few control the information of the many.

Net Neutrality Must Be Saved

It doesn’t matter what type of marketer you are, or what kinds of campaigns you’re running; paid search, SEO, display advertising, social media – it all hinges on preventing the ISPs from becoming the uncontested gatekeepers of our information.

Image credit: Steve Rhodes via Flickr

What You Can Do to Save Net Neutrality

It might seem as though there’s nothing you – the person reading this post – can do. However, that’s not the case. There are plenty of ways you can make your voice heard, preserve net neutrality, protect your job, and save your clients’ campaigns:

Image credit: ZDNet

Search marketers are sometimes accused of being reactionary and waiting to see what everyone else does before taking action. Don’t let this happen. Without net neutrality, search and internet marketing will be changed forever – and the results won’t be pretty.