Despite its lack of coverage in many small business publications, changes to net neutrality policy have the very real potential to hurt the majority of small business owners.
I know net neutrality sounds like an esoteric, dot-com-age term that's more at home with your conspiracy-theorist neighbor than at, say, a family-owned restaurant or any small business. But if that family-owned restaurant (let's call it 'Alter's Ale House') has a Web site that entices diners to come in for a pint and a burger, or customers use it to place an online order for a pizza, the demise of net neutrality is, indeed, a big deal. In fact, for any small business that has a Web site, it could directly affect your bottom line.
Net neutrality, as it currently stands, ensures that anyone who punches in the Web site address for Alter's Ale House or its huge, international-scale competitor MegaAle Pubs will receive either Web site in the same technological priority. No preferential treatment is given to corporations with deep pockets over the proverbial little guys.
Small businesses worldwide, and particularly in the US, have enjoyed a level playing field on the Internet thanks to net neutrality. Obviously in this hypothetical situation, MegaAle Pubs has a bigger budget and can spend more on Web site design, copywriting, and search engine optimization than Alter's Ale House, and will likely get many more visitors because of it. That's great — I'm not advocating anything that restricts a business from spending money on its products. I am, however, advocating that no business should receive preferential treatment in how its online product is delivered.
With net neutrality, an entrepreneurial spirit and some creativity, Alter's Ale House can build a Web site that targets a specific audience that may not be interested or impressed with MegaAle Pubs. And because Internet Service Providers currently serve up pages without deciding what we, the audience, really want or giving anyone preferential treatment, Alter's Ale House has the potential to cast its net as far as MegaAle Pubs — at least as far as the Internet is concerned.
Since April 2010, a federal court decision has restricted the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) ability to enforce net neutrality over broadband services. Now that major cable and Internet companies (usually one in the same) have pressured the FCC to create fast lanes and slow lanes on the Information Superhighway — Google and Verizon requested net neutrality exemption for wireless Internet just last month — small businesses' online presence is in serious jeopardy.
Of course, none of this has transpired yet. We can only wait and see what will happen at the 'Future of the Internet' public hearing in Minneapolis Thursday, August 19. But you can always visit Save the Internet and sign the petition if you're interested in preserving the voice of small businesses online.
MICHAEL ALTER is president of SurePayroll, America’s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University. @michaelalter