In good news for nonprofits and the continued viability of their online fundraising operations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed new rules supporting net neutrality, scuttling telecom businesses’ plans to implement a tiered system which would have directly harmed startups and charities unable to pay for the “fast lane” service touted by industry lobbyists.
About a dozen internet service providers (ISPs) – including AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and Verizon – sought control over how users access content online, arguing that they should have the ability to privilege certain content and data, as well as provide faster and more secure connections for businesses or content providers willing and able to pay a premium price.
After previous FCC rules were tossed out in 2014, net neutrality – or, in layman’s terms, an open internet in which ISPs provide access to content on an equal basis – was in doubt. Arguing that rules prohibiting a tiered system prevent “innovation” in the industry, telecom corporations aggressively pursued a rule change that would grant them greater control to award certain businesses and organizations with an optimum service. In this scenario, for example, a large and established news organization would receive faster upload speeds than a small nonprofit news site.
The new rules designate telecom businesses as “common providers,” thereby categorizing the internet as a utility, such as electricity. Like with other important utilities, providers cannot selectively deliver their essential services to particular areas or businesses to the detriment of others with less spending capacity.
Many big-time tech companies and content providers – including Google, Apple, and Facebook - joined in the debate, citing net neutrality as the catalyst for innovation that enabled them and other enterprises to launch out of garages and climb to the top bracket of profitability in the world economy.
If the net neutrality rules did not pass, nonprofits would have suffered a significant loss. Many services that have nonprofit parallels to the private sector would have been at a competitive disadvantage. From independent investigative journalism groups to credit unions, organizations would have faced sizable hurdles in providing their services at a same level as their for-profit peers. Online fundraising – which, as evidenced by the 2014 #GivingTuesday, is more important than ever – would also have likely lost some of its efficiency.
Nonprofits are major content providers. Relaying their message, mission, and goals to prospective donors, nonprofits generate a massive amount of important online content sustained by accessibility to sound digital dissemination. Under the telecom corporations’ scheme, troves of nonprofit communications would likely have been relegated to the “slow track,” with for-profit, salable content flying along the privileged track.
While the rules will most certainly face industry lawsuits, the victory reflects a codification of the democratic ideals of the internet, in which creative minds find even-footing with those of the establishment, guaranteeing a fair platform for organizations to make their case and grow.