Net neutrality is one of those subjects people have likely heard about, but don’t really know how it affects them. Now that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has repealed its net neutrality regulations, many pundits are speculating this new regulatory environment will either shut down or spur the growth of the internet. While opinions on the subject vary across the political spectrum, it is difficult to accurately predict how the repeal of net neutrality will actually affect the internet, consumers, and communication professionals. However, what is known is that the repeal has the potential to change the way the internet works and the trajectory of its development. As a result, anyone placing, writing, or managing content online, especially public relations professionals, needs to know what the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality means for them.
What is Net Neutrality and Why Was It Repealed?
Net neutrality is the practice where all content on the internet is delivered at the same speed, and it forbids internet service providers (ISPs) from charging for faster delivery of content. Officially adopted by the FCC in 2015, net neutrality specifically disallowed ISPs from blocking content, slowing down delivery of certain content, and allowing people or organizations to pay for faster delivery of their content. This approach to internet regulation categorized broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, which subjected ISPs to certain federal regulations including investigations and compliance requirements (Wigfield, 2015).
Prior to 2015, the federal government’s approach to internet regulation could be characterized as loose. However, as the internet became more essential in commerce and daily communication, the FCC in 2015 adopted the policy of net neutrality in an attempt to preserve the internet as it had always been—an open forum with equal access to content. It had first attempted to do this in 2010 with the FCC’s Open Internet Rules. However, that policy was struck down by the D.C. Court of Appeals in 2014 in FCC v. Verizon (2014). In response to that case the FCC issued a new standard of net neutrality. That policy was passed along party lines, 3-2, with the Democratic commissioners voting for and Republicans against. However, this policy was criticized by Republicans. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who was nominated to the FCC by President Obama and later made Chairman by President Trump, noted that these new regulations actually stifled the development of the internet, and placed an undue burden on small ISPs who were buried under compliance paperwork. (Pai, December 14, 2017).
Net neutrality policy advocates argued that without net neutrality there was the potential for there to be a two-tiered internet with some content being delivered faster and some being delivered slower or not at all. This fear of a paid expressway or “fast lanes” for some internet content led to other concerns over content distribution for those who could not afford to have their content disseminated so quickly (Wigfield, 2015, 2). Similarly, there were other concerns about ISPs, many of which are part of media conglomerates, favoring the content of their parent companies while blocking or slowing content of competitors (Clyburn, December 14, 2017; Rosenworcel, December 14, 2017).
With a new Republican administration the configuration of the FCC changed. Pai became the commissioner of the FCC, and with a 3-2 Republican majority the FCC changed its position and repealed the net neutrality laws. As expected the votes fell on party lines with Republican members voting in favor of the repeal and Democrats voting against. Even the language of the repeal was couched in political language with the FCC calling the repeal of net neutrality “Restoring Internet Freedom” (Pai, December 14, 2017, 1).
In his oral statement, Chairman Pai stated that the repeal of net neutrality returned the internet back to its pre-2015 status. He claimed this allowed the internet to evolve as it always had with loose regulation by the federal government. Small ISPs would no longer be burdened with the chore of adhering to rigid bureaucratic oversight, and innovations that had been tabled because of uncertainty would now be able to be implemented. Perhaps most importantly, Pai stated he did not think the two-tier system of faster delivery would occur because it had not happened pre-2015, and with new transparency provisions the FCC in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would oversee any deceptive ISP practices. Other Republican commissioners agreed stating that the fears of limiting access were unfounded, and that the repeal of net neutrality only served to increase market competition and innovation in the field (Carr, December 14, 2017; O’Rielly, December 14, 2017). Citing a recent appellate decision U.S. Telecom Association v. FCC (2017), Commissioner Carr stated that the old net neutrality rules did not even really prevent the “blocking, throttling, or…paid prioritization” that it sought to eliminate (Carr, December 14, 2017, p. 2).
So What Does This Repeal Mean for Public Relations?
The answer to the above question is, it depends on what the ISPs do. Right now the implementation of the repeal has not been completed, and ISPs, such as AT&T, Cox Communications, and Comcast, have stated that internet service will remain the same (AT&T Blog Team, 2017; Roberts, 2017; Cox Remains Committed to Net Neutrality Rules, 2017). Backing away from those commitments may be difficult right now, especially since these organizations state they will not slow or block content.
However, PR professionals need to be aware of the possibilities that exist under the repeal of net neutrality. This new regulation means ISPs are now in the position to charge for faster delivery of certain content. Whether or not they will do so remains to be seen. The slower the delivery of a message, the more like it is that a user will not stay around to receive it. For PR practitioners this is extremely important because content creation is not just about saying the right things, but reaching the right people. If publics aren’t there to receive the message then the effectiveness of PR diminishes.
What PR Professionals Need to Know:
If ISPs begin to charge for faster delivery and block or slow particular content it will most likely occur over time as ISPs currently have supported maintaining the status-quo on content delivery. However, if ISPs begin to make changes to online delivery PR professionals could experience three things:
Paid communication is going to be even more important. Since the advent of social media and the rise of digital communication public relations work has had to triangulate its communication practice between earned, owned, and paid media. The result has been a blurring of lines between public relations and advertising work, and the rise of paid media as part of many campaigns. Because the new FCC regulation allows ISPs to charge for faster delivery then the speed of content distribution will become a factor for PR communication. PR professionals will have to determine how fast content may be delivered online, and decide what outlets are best for all forms of content whether it be paid, owned, or earned. This not only will affect decisions for owned and paid content, but also pitches for earned media. It may be the case that earned media in multiple outlets is even more important than before because preference can be given by ISPs to content from media outlets from their parent companies or from those who pay for faster delivery.
Small clients may be adversely affected. The rise of social media has meant that smaller clients could gain access with key publics without having to engage in the expensive process of paid media. Because earned media was something that similarly was difficult for smaller clients to obtain, social media provided the perfect outlet for their communication needs. The elimination of net neutrality means that small clients may have to pay more for services so their messages can be delivered at a rate that is fast enough for publics. This may impact things such as search engine optimization (SEO), which is increased with links to websites and blogs from social media accounts. A downside to this is small clients, particularly those with limited communication budgets, may not be able to afford the type of communication strategy they need.
PR professionals may have to increase bottom line cost for work product. In designing campaigns cost always matters. In the past, however, the cost of having faster online delivery of content was not something PR professionals had to factor into their budgets. Under the old net neutrality rules content was treated the same. However, now PR professionals can select delivery mechanisms that provide faster content to publics. While this is an added cost, it could also be used as a benefit to clients who are willing to pay for the faster delivery of their content. This not only will result in potentially a new line on the budget, but it will also make PR professionals have to investigate more closely the outlets they are going to use for a campaign.
Of course, what will happen in the wake of the repeal is not certain. Listening to both sides of the issue it ranges from the end of the internet to the creation of a golden age of online innovation. What we do know is that the repeal of net neutrality has prompted some organizational changes to internet regulation. Along with the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality, it announced the FTC will have an increased role in internet regulation. Specifically the FCC and FTC have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) stating that the FCC will “monitor the broadband market and identify market entry barriers” while the FTC will take an enforcement role in “unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful acts or practices” by ISPs (FCC, 2017, 1, 2). In effect, the FTC and FCC will have a joint collaboration in the enforcement of ISP behavior, and the FTC will have a greater role in examining ISPs’ “disclosures” and “marketing, advertising, and promotional activities” (FCC, 2017, 2).
The bottom line is the internet has gone through several watershed moments in the last five years, and it is going to be changing in its regulation, cost, and delivery in the next decade. Even this repeal of net neutrality is not absolute as lawsuits and legislation seek to reinstate the policy. While new issues will surely emerge as the FCC regulation goes into effect it is important for PR professionals to know that they now, more than ever, have to have expertise in both content creation and technological innovation to compete in the digital age.
Cayce Myers, Ph.D., LL.M., J.D., APR is the legal research editor for the Institute for Public Relations. He is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s department of communication where he teaches public relations. Follow him on Twitter @caycemyers.
AT&T Blog Team. (2017). AT&T Statement on FCC Vote to Restore Internet Freedom. Retrieved from: https://www.attpublicpolicy.com/category/net-neutrality/.
Carr, B. (2017, December 14). Statement of Commissioner Brendan Carr. Retrieved from: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1214/DOC-348261A5.pdf.
Clyburn, M. (2017, December 14). Oral Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Mignon
Clyburn. Retrieved from: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1214/DOC-348261A5.pdf
Cox Communications. (2017). Cox Remains Committed to Net Neutrality Rules. Retrieved from: http://newsroom.cox.com/cox-remains-committed-to-net-neutrality.
Federal Communications Commission v. Verizon, 740 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 2014).
Federal Communications Commission. (2017). Draft Restoring Internet Freedom FCC-FTC
Memorandum of Understanding. Retrieved from: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1211/DOC-348192A1.pdf.
O’Rielly, M. (2017, December 14, 2017). Oral Statement of Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. Retrieved from: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1214/DOC-348261A4.pdf.
Pai, A. (2017, December 14). Oral Statement of Chairman Ajit Pai. Retrieved from https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-takes-action-restore-internet-freedom/pai-statement.
Roberts, B. (2017). Comcast Statement on a Free and Open Internet. Retrieved from: http://corporate.comcast.com/comcast-voices/comcast-statement-supporting-a-free-and-open-internet.
Rosenworcel, J. (2017, December 15). Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Jessica
Rosenworcel. Retrieved from: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1214/DOC-348261A6.pdf.
U.S. Telecom Association v. FCC, 855 F.3d 181 (D.C Cir. 2017).
Wigfield, M. (2015). FCC Adopts Strong, Sustainable Rules to Protect the Open Internet. Retrieved from: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2015/db0226/DOC-332260A1.pdf