On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commision voted 3-2 to approve the much contested “net neutrality” policy.
Much of the coverage surrounding the debate has focused on internet providers and tech companies, as these were the players in the game that stood to lose (or gain) the most.
But what about the ruling’s effect on nonprofits?
Essentially, Thursday’s decision by the FCC ensures that internet service providers (Comcast, Time Warner, etc.) cannot charge content providers (Netflix, Hulu, or the very blog you’re reading right now) extra for a “fast lane” for their content. The ruling also prohibits internet providers from blocking or slowing down content that may compete with their services.
It may not seem the ruling would have much of an effect on the not-for-profit sector, given that most nonprofit’s web presence consists of websites that don’t require large amounts of data to operate.
However, the decision also protects nonprofits from several tactics that could have threatened the very existence of certain organizations.
Blocking dissenting voices
The risk of allowing internet providers to slow down or block certain content goes beyond data-hogging sites like Netflix. Without the net neutrality ruling, internet providers could in theory block ideas that they disagree with or find threatening to their businesses.
And this is where we see the biggest application for the nonprofit sector.
A political organization that supports a view that is opposed to the best interests of Comcast could find its website blocked or slowed down for Comcast customers. As the Millennial generation becomes more important to nonprofits, so too will a strong web presence become for these organizations.
These organizations frequently rely on a viral spread of their message, asking supporters to sign petitions or pledge support. If their access to supporters was blocked, it would be nearly impossible for these types of organizations to spread their word.
Without the net neutrality ruling, internet providers could have potentially restructured internet packages for consumers into a “pay-for-play” model. In this scenario, consumers would select different tiers of service that grant them access to websites in that tier.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how your cable TV package is structured.
You pay for a select tier of service and get access to channels like CNN, Comedy Central, ESPN, etc.
Internet providers could structure their packaging so that you pay for a tier of service that grants to access to sites like Netflix, CNN, and ESPN, while blocking access to sites you haven’t paid for.
In this instance, power shifts to the powerful companies who can afford to pay the internet providers to keep their websites in front of consumers. And just like your cable package, when that company has a contract dispute with the internet provider, their website is blocked (until they pay up).
This does not bode well for nonprofits with limited budgets.
It’s not unfathomable that this scenario could have happened, given that many internet providers are also in the cable TV business. They’ve also seen their once lucrative cable businesses begin to drop in profitability as people turn to online platforms for entertainment. Why not recapture that profit?
A Win for the Little Guys
Applications to the nonprofit world may seem far-fetched in the here-and-now, but it’s impossible to foresee how nonprofits might utilize the internet in the future. Perhaps some savvy organization will find a way to make radical changes in the world that does require large amounts of data. Thursday’s ruling protects their ability to do that.
The ruling has been widely billed as a win for “the little guys;” the startups, newcomers, and small-budget businesses trying to carve out a place for themselves.
A vast majority of nonprofits find themselves in that same pool, and the net neutrality ruling allows them to keep fighting for their cause without one hand tied behind their back.