“Net neutrality” is one of those terms that is banded about more and more, with increasingly hysterical commentary from both sides of the argument being screamed across social media.
But why is it such a hot topic? Net neutrality is in the news because Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai, has announced plans to roll back net neutrality laws.
At the very core of the argument, ‘net neutrality’ is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally. This means that whether you’re streaming Netflix, uploading photos to Facebook, torrenting software on BitTorrent, or mining Bitcoin your internet speed is not affected by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
The opposite of this is a tiered internet service. In theory, you would be able to pay for different levels of access to the internet. Your ISP would be able to encourage use of particular websites by limiting, or ‘throttling’, the traffic to the alternatives. For instance, if you were on a Netflix package from your ISP you may find that your Netflix viewing is quick and easy, but you’d struggle to watch anything on Amazon Prime. Alternatively, your ISP may restrict your browsing to prevent you from researching its rivals. Extrapolated out further, there’s also the possibility of governments lobbying ISPs to limit access to content or information that they find objectionable.
As with so many issues in the modern world, the polarisation of the debate has stifled informed discussion. It has degenerated into mud slinging between people who see themselves as the last bastions of a truly free internet, and those who feel that regulation is the only way to preserve the internet in its current form.
So what does this mean for PR and social media? Both outcomes could have fairly drastic implications. If net neutrality is preserved, and there is no bandwidth throttling by ISPs, the speed of the internet’s traffic will largely come down to the overall quality of the ISP connection, the device you’re using, and the website or content you’re trying to access. Content will have to be designed and optimised to ensure it is fast-loading and efficient.
If a tiered system is put in place the value of media outlets, in terms the coverage they can offer, will depend entirely on their access to bandwidth. There’d be little point in securing coverage in an outlet that doesn’t have a good deal with the ISPs for unhindered access to its website.
This, in turn, could place a stronger emphasis on social media. If traffic to its website is being throttled, an outlet may start to rely on its social media presence (as we can assume the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram will be unhindered by any sort of restrictions). This would mean that media outlets could become more precious about their social media content; what they post, what they share, how they price social media exposure, and so on. While many outlets do this already (paid placements on social media aren’t exactly a rarity), it could make the practice even more widespread.
In essence, PR could become even more reliant on social media to deliver messages and campaigns if the notion of traditional online coverage begins to change under the pressure of restricted bandwidth. It could also see paid-for social media advertising become an intrinsic and assumed aspect of any level of campaign.
The internet is one of society’s great levellers. Since the broadband revolution in the early 2000s internet access has become relatively cheap and many countries already consider it a basic human right. On the internet it doesn’t matter how you vote or what your income is, how you identify your gender or your race, or even if you’re a dog. If you have an internet connection you have access to the widest collection of mankind’s knowledge ever known. One day there will be academic textbooks written about this point in the internet’s development; the pivotal moment in the net’s journey from a network of niche interests to a truly ubiquitous aspect of life in the Western world. Without exaggeration, the route taken in the coming months and years will determine what kind of online world we live in. Will it be one where all aspects of the internet are treated equally and access granted to anyone who seeks it, or will it be at the behest of corporate powers? Only time, and the courts, will tell.