When shopping for an internet service provider (ISP) for a home or business, most people look at two numbers: the speed, and the price. Subscribing to a plan from an ISP gives us access to all the internet. This is thanks to standards adopted early in the history of the internet that allow every connected device to communicate with all other online devices.
We can fire up our laptops or phones and browse to any website, use whatever online services we choose, and talk to whomever we like. It’s easy to believe that this freedom is inevitable, but it’s actually something that’s regularly under threat.
In this article we’ll look at the terminology involved - like “net neutrality” and “open source” - and explore why the open web is important for small businesses.
What Does It All Mean?
The word “neutrality” typically conjures images of usually neutral nations like Switzerland or Sweden. In political and business circles, neutrality is often frowned upon - people are expected to have principles, ideas and to stand for something. As much as we might dislike the idea of “being neutral” in many contexts, it’s actually a key concept in our lives.
For example, the power company doesn’t get to choose what we use electricity for - we pay our bill and expect to plug-in any electronic device and have it work. That’s how things work on the internet too - at least in most countries. We pay for our connection to the internet, and then we can use that connection however we like. That is what net neutrality is - the idea that telecoms companies treat all internet traffic equally.
ISP’s would love to charge more for access to popular services, though - they’d like to charge us for the connection, and then offer more packages for access to different services & websites. Want to stream videos from YouTube? That’ll be an extra $10 a month. Want to play multiplayer video games? That’s part of the $20 a month gaming add-on. Net neutrality is what stops this from happening.
The Open Internet
Net neutrality is part of a broader set of ideas known as the open internet. The exact principles that fall under the umbrella of an “open internet” is up for debate, but generally includes these ideas:
- Open standards. The technologies on which the internet is based should be open for anyone to use, modify, and examine. There are a number of organisations that govern standards on the internet - most notably, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
- No censorship. This is a key tenet of most democracies, and that extends to the internet too.
- Low barriers to entry. This keeps the internet cheap and accessible to all.
- Decentralized power. This is the idea that no one nation or organisation should have ultimate control over the internet.
These concepts are closely related to the open source model of software licensing. Open source software is developed by large corporations, small start ups and even individual programmers. The code is then licensed as open source so that anyone can change, contribute to, examine, and improve it. Open source software has many advantages for small businesses, but we’ll save that for another post.
Why Small Businesses Should Care About This Stuff
You might be wondering what all this has to do with you. Net neutrality, the open-web; it all sounds kinda nerdy, and if we’re being honest, a bit boring. For most small businesses, it boils down to three main factors: cost, fairness, and performance.
Right now, the biggest barrier to building a website for most people is technical knowledge. With the right know-how and a bit of time, anyone can build a simple website for free and host it online for a couple of dollars per month. The technical hurdle can be overcome pretty easily by hiring a professional to do it for you, or doing it yourself with a site builder. Once it’s online, anyone can type in your website address and look at what you’ve published. However, in a world without the open web, things look a lot worse.
For example, perhaps the dominant ISP in your city doesn’t include most websites in its regular internet package, and instead offers businesses the “opportunity” to pay for inclusion in the list of websites their customers can access. Maybe there are multiple ISPs, and businesses need to pay all of them off in order to be included. Or perhaps ISPs inject ads on your website, informing visitors that the site will load faster if customers “upgrade” to the premium service package. Whatever the case, it causes frustration for consumers and adds costs for businesses.
An open internet helps level the playing field. Without it, bigger businesses have an increased advantage, because they have the cash to pay the ISPs for access. This makes things harder for smaller businesses, to the point that some may not even start to begin with. That means reduced competition and reduced innovation, causing more unfairness in an economic system that’s already heavily skewed against the “little guy”.
Customers want things quickly. We’ve known this for years, but it has only grown more prominent as internet speeds have increased. According to some research, 40% of website users will abandon a website if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. That’s great if you have a fast website - but if net neutrality ceased to exist, ISPs could deliberately slow down certain websites. Where your website was once lightning fast, it might now take so long to load that potential visitors don’t even wait for it to finish.
The Future of Net Neutrality
Whether or not you’re protected by net neutrality rules largely depends on where you live. The US government introduced rules in 2015 to enshrine net neutrality in law, however the current politics down south suggest those rules could be in jeopardy. Here in Canada, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) adopted stronger net neutrality rules in April of this year, so we Canadians are unlikely to see the potential consequences we’ve discussed above (for now).
Telecoms companies like to spend money lobbying government. If they think people don’t care about or understand net neutrality, they’ll be emptying their coffers to get the rules changed. As more business shifts online, it’s vital to understand the risks and opportunities your business could face. To learn more about the net neutrality, check out The Open Inter.net.