Hey, Ad Land, Wake Up to Net Neutrality!!
By Kirk Cheyfitz, Story Co-founder
I really, really can’t believe the ad biz isn’t raising holy hell over the Trump administration’s plans to end net neutrality.
Everyone else is fighting back — the ACLU and other civic non-profits see an attack on the open Internet as an attack on free speech; Silicon Valley’s giants and tech non-profits see threats to net neutrality as serious threats to innovation and commerce.
But we haven’t heard a peep from the ad industry, which claims to care about free speech and technological innovation and actually depends on open web access. (On July 12, “Net Neutrality Day of Action,” 227 companies and non-profits participated in a net-wide protest against Trump’s plans to end net neutrality, but not a single ad holding company, leading consumer goods advertiser or major ad agency participated, according to a comprehensive list.)
If the ad biz doesn’t wake up fast and join the war to preserve net neutrality, it will wake up, instead, to new federal regulations that allow cable and telecom ISPs to selectively charge huge fees to advertisers for the privilege of putting ad messages online. This will not be a good day for anyone (except, of course, the ISPs).
When this issue is raised, too many marketers are still musing out loud, “What’s net neutrality?” They don’t care enough or know enough about the web to understand the issue. It’s reminiscent of the recent health care debacle — too few people appreciated Obamacare’s role in their lives until it was almost gone. Only then did roughly 7 of 8 Americans realize they did not support repealing the health care law.
For everyone in ad land, here’s the primer on access to the Internet in America:
- The Internet, in case you’ve been in a coma for 20 years, is a communications carrier, soon to be the carrier of virtually all communications.
- Its use is regulated, logically enough, by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), part of the federal government.
- In early 2015, after a long battle, Obama’s FCC approved rules that guarantee everyone equal access to the Internet, prohibit discrimination against any kind of Internet traffic, and declare the net a “common carrier” or public utility, like a phone company or a long-haul trucking firm, subject to government regulation.
- In May of this year, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia rejected petitions from telecoms and cable representatives asking that the FCC’s open internet regulations be overturned.
- At roughly the same time as the Appeals Court decision, new Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to roll back the FCC’s rules requiring net neutrality. The full commission voted to begin the roll-back process.
Virtually everyone in America cheered the decisions favoring net neutrality except the telecom and cable companies that operate ISPs. They didn’t cheer, obviously, because they had just been deprived of the unregulated opportunity to block, slow down or speed up email and other online content based on getting higher rates for better, faster delivery treatment.
Some others who didn’t cheer are right-of-center economists and Republicans who believe market forces will sort out everything and regulating the Internet is bad policy. I’ll point out, mildly, that market forces, most recently, brought us the global financial disaster of 2008.
Another kind of objection to the FCC’s net neutrality rules is the fundamental one that Congress never clearly gave the FCC the authority to regulate the Internet. Some say they favor net neutrality, but prefer the Congress pass a law mandating it. On the one hand, there’s a good argument that Internet access does fall under the FCC’s authority. Perhaps more importantly, Congress can’t seem to do much of anything these days, so placing our faith in them is likely an outlandish fantasy.
For everyone in the ad industry who’s having trouble imagining why the end of net neutrality might mean a particularly bad day for ad land, please recall the Israeli tech company Shine that developed software to block ads at the network level — the ISP level. Shine has since quit threatening an advertising Armageddon, has joyously rebranded itself Rainbow and now says it just wants to be nice and help the ad biz improve user experience. This sounds lovely, but Rainbow’s software and other similar tools can easily be used to allow ISPs to selectively block ads so they can charge fees for allowing ads to get to audiences online.
Here at Post Advertising, we’ve been trying to get ad land’s attention to this issue since it became a public controversy in 2014. (It was first raised in 2002 in a “proposal” by Tim Wu, a well known legal expert.) I believe an open Internet is critical to the survival of free speech, unhampered commerce and constant innovation. If you are an agency head, a CMO, or an ad holding company executive, you should be talking and lobbying on this issue. If you aren’t already speaking up, it’s time to turn your attention to net neutrality immediately.
Here are some resources that will help:
- For a great, simple Q&A about net neutrality, there’s nothing better than the ACLU’s.
- For those who can’t imagine how the end of net neutrality would be bad for advertising, Ad Age did a passable job of explaining why it will be “costly” for the industry.
- To see the views of the markets-will-take-care-of-us folks, this HBR blog post is informative and even useful, although wildly optimistic, as I said, for the faith it places on market forces to create positive outcomes for all.
- And, finally, for a preview of the coming congressional hearings on possible net neutrality laws, take a look at Recode’s preview.
There. Now please stop asking what net neutrality is and do something to preserve it.