iMedia Connection

What does a non-neutral internet look like for marketers?

Tom Hespos

Lots of people who market online ignore the net neutrality debate. If you ask some of them why, many point to a lack of understanding of the issues, as well as a sense that there's not much they can do to affect the outcome.

At the core of the issue is whether telecoms should be able to discriminate and throttle internet traffic crossing its networks. The pro-neutrality side believes prioritizing traffic can put smaller players at a disadvantage, and open up a world where telecommunications companies essentially decide what is seen and not seen on the internet. The anti-neutrality side believes telecoms should have the right to regulate their networks as they see fit.

Listening to the propeller-heads, politicians, social media addicts, and media outlets debating the issues surrounding net neutrality can be maddening. Most marketers don't have the time or inclination to get involved in the discussion at the level of geekery necessary to formulate a strong opinion. (If you have been following this very closely, kudos to you -- and please share your tips for keeping your sanity in comments. I could use them.)

I've already written columns on which side of this issue I fall on, and I'm not going to belabor the issue. What I want to discuss is what could happen if telecoms do achieve the control they're seeking.

A humorous graphic made the social news rounds a while back. Click that link and check it out. It's one of those things that amuses and scares you at the same time, because you know it's hyperbole, but uncomfortably close to the truth.

If the net remains neutral, nothing much changes about the way marketers operate on the internet. If telecoms do secure the right to regulate traffic and derive profits from giving preferential treatment to certain sites, services, and protocols, we might see a world where content and service providers rush to telecoms in order to cut preferential deals. What would the world look like if suddenly Bing searches took a fraction of the time that Google searches did, thanks to telecom throttling?

The short-term effect might make the internet start to look like the world of cable, where networks fight with MSOs about carriage fees, and your favorite content goes missing for weeks or months because the network and your cable provider are fighting over fees.

We might see a la carte pricing, like in the graphic I linked. More likely, though, I think if this pricing model comes into play, we would see it align around services and protocols, which would force those pesky "power users" that ISPs complain about so much to pay more for connectivity for FTP, peer-to-peer traffic (like file-sharing), and such. 

Truth be told, I'm worried more about what happens to the future of digital innovation on a non-neutral internet. We currently have an environment that allows upstart companies to come out of nowhere and reshape how we think about advertising, sponsorship, and promotion. Google came out of nowhere and revolutionized our broken search marketing model. Likewise for Facebook when it comes to how we approach social marketing. And internet marketers thrive on these radical upheavals of current models to move toward a place where consumers and advertisers can comfortably co-exist in the digital environment. I'm not saying we're necessarily there yet, of course, but the chaotic shifts in understanding of what's possible are the thing that's driving us toward the goal.

Now, can you picture what happens to this hyper-evolution of models if, say, Facebook were approached at a critical stage in its development as telecoms decided they wanted some sort of carriage fee? I don't think I would be alone in thinking this would stifle innovation. And that's what scares me the most about a non-neutral internet.

Tom Hespos is the chairman and president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com.

On Twitter? Follow Tom at @THespos1 or @_MarketingLLC. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.