Why small businesses may want to advocate for net neutrality

The debate over net neutrality, for me, comes down to a basic question: Can I still get easy access to webcasts of the Club Atlético Rosario Central soccer games?

When I became a fan of this Argentine team 15 years ago, it was nearly impossible to see one of their games. Internet and mobile phone proliferation since then now makes it possible for me to watch all their games, and on my cellphone from anywhere. At home. A bar. The airport.

In part because we have, in layman’s terms, a global, egalitarian internet where I can watch a soccer game on the other side of the hemisphere just as easily as I will watch this Sunday’s Miami Dolphins game.

Net neutrality makes it so by equally treating content on the internet, be it sporting matches, shopping deals, news, or YouTube videos. As a result, you and I as internet consumers have a reasonably easy time finding content we want to find by virtue of the keywords we use to search for it.

There are those who say net neutrality is a moot point because of targeted advertising and other guerrilla marketing practices, and there is some truth to that. But I think most of use would agree that net neutrality still exists.

At least until Dec. 14. That’s the date the Federal Communications Commission has set to vote on new regulations that critics say will be the end of net neutrality by overturning rules passed two years ago barring internet service providers from blocking or giving preference to broadband content.

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I am far from an expert on any of this. Which is why my interest in the topic comes down to self-interest — can I still see programming I want to see.

So I posed the question to a former FCC official who was at the agency in the early days of internet regulation.

Joy Howell, who served as director of the Office of Public Affairs at the FCC from 1998 to 2001, said eliminating net neutrality is a mistake that could deal a big blow to small businesses.

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“Right now the FCC has rules in place that make sure all content on the Internet is pretty much distributed at the same pace,” said Howell. “If they go away, then major corporations or monied interests would be able to pay to get faster distribution of their content over Joe the Blogger, even small businesses, which are the engines of growth in this country.”

Howell, who lives in Delray Beach and runs short-term luxury rental properties, pointed out that one reason there has been a proliferation of successful small businesses in the past decade or so is because of access to the internet. The web has fueled a lot of innovative start-ups simply by giving them a level playing platform in which to compete.

In her case, Howell pointed out, in a net neutral landscape she can purchase ads to boost her properties listings on search engines, which increases the chances of rentals.

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All that is at risk if net neutrality is ended, she insisted.

“The question is whether the internet is a utility, like phones and electricity,” she said. “The reason phones and electricity are regulated as utilities is because they were deemed, way back when, to be indispensable to business. For businesses to succeed, they needed access to those. I’d argue the internet is now just as indispensable to business.”

I played devil’s advocate with Howell because I do think net neutrality has a dark side, too.

Meaning, our staff at The Palm Beach Post works hard to produce news in the public interest following strict certain principles and standards. But when our content, from community coverage to investigative reports to consumer watchdog news, goes digital it has to compete with tons of fluff and nonsense because net neutrality values it all the same.

So, I said, eliminating net neutrality could give bigger, true news organizations leverage to allow our content to supersede that which masquerades as news.

Howell agreed, in theory, that could be the case. But she worries that ending net neutrality will mean internet service providers will evolve from simply managing platforms where content is distributed to also producing their own content. And once the ISPs have their own proprietary content, why would they allow yours or mine to compete with it?

“If they own their own content, who are they going to favor?” she asked rhetorically. “Me? A small business? Or their own content?”

If so, then what seems to be worth keeping is not so much a neutral internet but, rather, an accessible internet.

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