(Image: Backbone Campaign, Creative Commons)
In a 3-2 vote, the FCC voted to eliminate Obama-era regulations protecting the free and open internet. The rules upheld “net neutrality,” a system that essentially required internet service provides (ISPs) to treat all legal websites and digital services equally.
Net neutrality is a basic concept. It means that an ISP, for example, cannot legally hamper consumer access to another business’ digital products and services. This arrangement keeps the internet an open playing field where startups can jump right into the fray with established businesses and democratic discourse can flow freely without fear of retribution from powerful interests.
This is how the internet has generally worked. That is, at least until now.
Proponents for slashing the rules argue that they prevent innovation. In reality, with the regulations gone, ISPs will simply be more powerful, capable of capriciously billing certain companies more than others and stonewalling competitors that provide similar services to their own. ISPs will now be able to intentionally slow traffic to a particular website or block it altogether.
Ultimately, it will have the exact opposite effect that its proponents predict; it will lead to a less free market dominated by an increasingly small number of telecommunications conglomerates.
The move by the FCC was deeply unpopular, with 8 out of 10 voters disapproving of the rule change.
The vote ended up falling along party lines, with the Trump-appointed FCC chair Ajit Pai leading the campaign to destroy the regulations. Before occupying his current position, Pai worked as a top lawyer for Verizon.
Until recently, net neutrality enjoyed bipartisan support. In an editorial for the Houston Chronicle, the paper points out that net neutrality was part of the Texas GOP’s platform until 2014. Guess what companies co-sponsored the party’s 2014 convention that scrapped its support for net neutrality? Verizon and Time Warner Cable.
Everyone should be concerned about the long-term ramifications of eliminating net neutrality, including nonprofits. For one, nonprofits dedicated to the social good should oppose efforts to destroy the democratic nature of the open internet, which has created unprecedented access to knowledge, skills, and economic opportunity. By turning the internet into a tool for ISPs to pursue their self-serving agenda, the FCC attacked the core qualities of the internet that have spurred incredible innovation through broad accessibility and connected underserved communities around the world to a wealth of information.
Additionally, nonprofits should be concerned about what the elimination of net neutrality means for their own digital infrastructure. When ISPs roll out a tiered internet highway system, will nonprofits have the resources to pay the toll for the highest level, or will they lag behind better endowed private enterprises? Perhaps some organizations will enjoy special treatment from the ever-profitable telecommunications companies – unilaterally dictating the flow of information like never before – though this is far from a guarantee.
No matter who your organization serves or what your mission is, this ruling affects you. It will limit online fundraising efforts and outreach to students and teachers. Your message will face new hurdles reaching those in need or who may have an interest in your services. Expect budget-breaking prices for internet services that may not even provide you with what your organization needs.
Get creative with how you connect with your audiences. The price of an email could rise above that of a stamp. What would that mean for your communications calendar?
Most importantly, advocate for net neutrality. Call your state’s attorney general office and help them understand the devastating impact this ruling has on your organization and the constituents you serve. Internally, have the tough conversations with organizational leadership now and plan for the best- and worse-case scenarios. Chart a path that will ensure that your organization’s mission is not comprised no what lies ahead.