For U.S. business, the open Internet is like peace. Many businesses benefit from it but many of them take it for granted. As a result, the voices of the beneficiaries are drowned out by the handful of businesses who would benefit if the Internet were not open. In fact, an open Internet is important to the vast majority of U.S. businesses, as it is to all U.S. consumers.
The businesses benefiting from an open Internet need to make their voices heard as if their economic life depended on it, because it does.
The open Internet is a set of rules that the FCC made after a decade of litigation to prohibit Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) from blocking Internet content, charging certain content for priority (the so-called “pay-to-play”), and interfering with, or otherwise discriminating against, Internet content. The open Internet has millions of vocal supporters and few vocal opponents.
The supporters are literally millions -- the FCC received almost 4 million comments, the vast majority in favor of open Internet rules. They include consumers, public interest organizations, and the so-called “edge” providers that supply online content. Those businesses evidently rely on consumers having unfettered access to that content. Companies such as Netflix, DISH, and Amazon are a few examples.
The opponents, while equally vocal, are far fewer: just 13 entities have appealed the FCC’s rules to the D.C. Circuit. They are essentially the ISPs who would like to favor their own content or the content of those companies willing to pay them for that privilege. In between there is silence. A great silent majority of businesses that have not expressed a position on the open Internet rules and do not believe they need to. They do.
What do the open Internet and peace have in common? Let us first look at peace. Many businesses thrive because of it. Hotels sell beds, theme parks sell rollercoaster rides, airlines sell flights, and movie studios sell tickets. But peace ranks low on any of those businesses’ list of government relations priorities. On the other hand, military budgets rank high on the agenda of weapons makers. So the few who benefit a lot trump the many who benefit a little. The many think they only benefit a little and “the game is not worth the candle.”
Whether that view is right or wrong in matters of peace, it is certainly wrong in open Internet matters. Business takes too much for granted when it reaps the benefits of an open Internet but does nothing to preserve it. The Internet is woven into the fabric of the moneymaking enterprise for everyone. Examples abound: in sales of goods and services, where ecommerce takes up an ever increasing share of business across all sectors; in marketing and advertising, where sellers have an unprecedented ability to find and communicate with people interested in their goods or services; in recruiting, where web-based platforms have transformed job visibility, information-sharing and networking for employers and employees alike; and in telecommuting, where colleagues can eliminate physical barriers to work from anywhere they choose, cooperate in real-time from far-flung places, and improve scheduling and flexibility.
But, some will say, these benefits are equally available to us and our competitors. They do not give us an edge, so why should we care? When everyone can become somebody, then no one is anybody. The problems with that line of thinking are many, but one is that it creates kingmakers. It empowers the ISPs to anoint one as a somebody or a nobody by moving the wand of preferential treatment.
Others may be silent because of the free ride problem. Sure, they may think, we will receive some benefit if we expend resources to protect the open Internet. But myriad others will benefit too, and get a free ride on our back. True, but what if every firm is paralyzed from action that helps all firms as a result? The creation of associations with a large business membership that are focused on advocating for an open Internet, and empowerment and broadening of those associations that exist, such as COMPTEL, should mitigate that problem by spreading costs among many beneficiaries. In the open Internet, U.S. business find a cause worth rallying for.