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The Loss of Net Neutrality and What It Means for Brands

Steve Heisler

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Given a recent ruling against net neutrality, how can brands maximize a throttled internet connection?

Odds are that your business has benefited from net neutrality. The practice, which was repealed by a federal court in June 2018, forbids internet service providers from throttling or otherwise limiting bandwidth to particular sites. For example: Hulu is a joint venture owned by Disney and Comcast, so without net neutrality, Comcast could severely reduce the speed afforded to Netflix or Amazon Prime Video in all homes running Comcast internet, instead favoring Hulu and Disney’s upcoming streaming service, Disney+.

Big brands aren’t the only ones relying on net neutrality: Any brand competing with a company owned by a major media conglomerate is in danger of having its website speed neutered or its ads load slowly.

On Oct. 1, a federal judge laid out a ruling that ostensibly benefits the FCC and large monopolies but retains protection for brands of all sizes. A collection of online advocacy groups, along with 22 states’ attorneys general, had filed a case hoping to reverse the 2018 decision to strip net neutrality. They lost on Oct. 1, but the court maintained a state’s right to set its own internet regulations—making it difficult for Comcast and others to enact non-neutrality policies across the board. After all, national companies run into legal challenges when attempting to blanket the country, as each state maintains different rules.

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The lawsuits will certainly continue, keeping the fate of net neutrality uncertain. Here’s why brands should follow the progress.

E-Commerce Concerns

It’s difficult enough for small online shops to compete against Amazon. The retail behemoth sells everything and anything for low prices at nearly instantaneous delivery speeds. The loss of net neutrality further inhibits the growth of specialty markets, in that the performance of those e-commerce sites will be significantly diminished and prone to technical issues. SEO would also be at risk, given that large corporations can directly pay for higher search ranking.

If your brand doesn’t fall under the umbrella of a major telecommunications company, consider revamping your e-commerce site to include smaller-resolution images to aid with load times—so long as they’re not grainy.

Ad Revenue and Metrics

Just as images and videos will load more slowly in a non-net neutrality world, so, too, will banner ads and other digital marketing tools. This can be a major issue for brands relying on ads to get the word out, as ads typically load last and customers might have blazed past that particular page by the time the ad is ready to be viewed. And if brands want to advertise on pages that aren’t throttled, they should expect to pay a pretty penny.

Small companies would be wise to start thinking about other sources of marketing—possibly sponsorships or branded content—that venture away from traditional models of online advertising. It may also be worth diving into different metrics to prove the effectiveness of campaigns. If clicks and concurrents become more difficult to measure due to slow load speeds, perhaps social media could play a larger role in your analysis.

Heavily Internet-Reliant Technology

On the other hand, companies breaking into innovative spaces might serve to benefit from a lack of net neutrality. The Los Angeles Times explains that technology such as self-driving cars or real-time healthcare-monitoring software can rest easy knowing they’ll always enjoy a strong, unencumbered internet connection—for the right price, of course. This stands to create a better brand experience for consumers dipping their toe into the future of web-heavy services.

However, any startup breaking into this space starts at a severe disadvantage, as they’re less likely to be able to afford the same high-speed internet connection. This leads to less competition and, eventually, the same kinds of monopolies that stand to benefit the most from abolishing net neutrality in the first place.

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.