What’s at Stake for Content Creators in the Net Neutrality Debate?

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Article ImageOn the fast-paced information superhighway--where speed rules and web wannabes drool--the spinning hourglass is as lethal a symbol as the skull and crossbones. Nearly half of all consumers expect a webpage to load in 2 seconds or less, and 40% of people ditch websites that take longer than 3 seconds to load. Case in point, Google would lose 8 million searches daily if the load time on its search results was slowed by merely four-tenths of a second--resulting in fewer adverts by the millions.

Luckily for big and small content providers alike, the open and unfettered internet--where all data is theoretically treated equally and neutrally and consumers can access content quickly without fear of a site being deliberately blocked or choked off by broadband providers--has prevailed, thanks to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voting to preserve Net Neutrality in late February.

ISPs that pushed for paid prioritization (the ability to charge content sites and services more for increased bandwidth) have suffered a major defeat now that the FCC has reclassified broadband providers as telecom services that should be more stringently regulated and plans to treat the internet as a public utility. Pundits and prognosticators were split on their predictions as to how the FCC would decide the matter. However, almost everyone agreed that the stakes were high--for consumers and content providers alike.

Where the Public and Professionals Stand

Recent surveys indicate that most people (at least those who care and/or are educated about the issue) are strongly in favor of keeping the internet neutral. Approximately 81% of Americans disagreed with enabling ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast to charge websites and streaming video services more money for faster speeds, but 17% are in favor of this practice, per the results of a University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication poll released November 2014. Meanwhile, a VentureBeat survey published the same month found that 27% of Americans supported Net Neutrality, 14% oppose it, and a whopping 58% don't have an opinion.

There's a lack of polling data on this issue that reflects the views of content providers. But SEMPO, a nonprofit organization representing search and digital marketing professionals, conducted a notable survey in December 2014; it found that 77% of its members agree with the concept of Net Neutrality. Meanwhile, dozens of tech companies-many of them digital content creators-added their names to an open letter to the FCC advocating for Net Neutrality.

Econtent Consequences

Content providers rely on two forms of monetization to subsidize content: advertising and/or subscriptions. Consider a world without Net Neutrality, where internet speed zones are allowed to collect tolls. Content companies with money to burn could command an unfair advantage over small-fry competitors who can't afford the extra charges and whose users won't tolerate the extra costs being passed on to them. Remaining in the slow lane, you run the risk of passengers departing your vehicle in droves and hopping aboard faster content vessels-whether it is your rival's blog, online magazine, video channel, or otherwise. Forking over the extra funds for a fast pass would likely drain resources otherwise spent on quality content, which could also lead to user abandonment.

Indeed, the ramifications (especially for smaller publishers, fledgling startups, and mom-and-pop digital content shops) are alarming, say the experts. "Without Net Neutrality, ISPs become gatekeepers who can charge a toll for preferential access to their customers," says Kit Walsh, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco. "If you're an established content provider with deep pockets, this means you need to pay ISPs protection money to keep your traffic in the fast lane. If you're an individual creator or small business, then you simply may not be able to afford faster access, and you'll have trouble gaining visibility and competing in the marketplace. Either way, no content creator wants more gatekeepers on the internet extracting tolls from them or preventing them from experimenting with new technologies and new business models."

Dimitar Serafimov, digital marketing manager for InPlayer in London, agrees. "Digital publishers and content creators rely on free, open internet and data treated equally. Those are the principles that need to be in place for them to distribute original content and reach new audiences," says Serafimov. "Blocking content, setting entry barriers, discriminating, or implementing fees for access and preference are clearly harming those principles."

In that context, ISPs (as well as content publishers) in a non-neutral internet world would lose trust and credibility in the eyes of end users due to the biased output. But by maintaining the principles of free internet and data treated equally, "all players will have the same privileges and opportunities to market their content. Fair competition will throw quality on top," Serafimov adds.

In a neutrality-neutered net, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, insists Yun-Oh Whang, clinical assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business. "We will see much fewer entries to the market by fresh entrepreneurs who can't afford to pay for a reasonable transmission speed. They will never be able to reach their audience," Whang says. "Choice will be taken away from consumers, as ISPs will decide what you can see."

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