Last month, during Small Business Week, small businesses descended on US Senators’ offices. They signed petitions, wrote letters and emails, even put up billboards. What was all the fuss about? Small businesses were trying to help save open and equal access to the Internet. The US Senate, in a bipartisan vote, tried to do its bit to save what is known as “net neutrality.” But, alas, the Internet as you knew it may die as soon as early June.

Do I sound alarmist? Well, bear with me. It’s because living in the heart of Silicon Valley but working with small businesses from coast to coast, I have a pretty good grasp of just how important an open, equal Internet is to small businesses and startups all over this country. You may think this is just a “techy” issue. But it’s not.

Net neutrality means the companies that run the backbone of the Internet—Internet Service Providers (ISPs)—must treat all data all the same. They can’t make deals with big companies to create a “fast lane,” where their data gets sent faster than other companies. They can’t throttle a competitor’s data. Imagine if the electric company could choose to provide better electrical service to companies that paid them a hefty fee and spotty electricity to those that don’t. It would stifle competition from smaller companies and innovative entrepreneurs. That’s what the repeal of net neutrality is going to allow.

That’s why, about a quarter of small businesses say that net neutrality is very important to their business and just about half say it is important, in a new survey conducted by the group Small Business Majority.

“Net neutrality is critical to America’s small businesses,” said John Arensmeyer, Founder and CEO of Small Business Majority. “Without protections in place to keep the internet fair and open, small employers will be put at a disadvantage when trying to compete with larger corporations that have the resources to ensure their websites receive special prioritization from their internet service providers.”

The repeal of net neutrality amounts to a tax on small businesses that they just can’t afford,” said Evan Greer, Deputy Director, Fight for the Future. “It allows the largest, most powerful companies to squash their competition by cutting competitive deals with big ISPs, who will become the gatekeepers of the free market, picking and choosing which businesses succeed, and which ones fail. This doesn’t just impact high tech businesses—in 2018 every business needs to be online. Every small business owner should be up in arms.

Now, remember: the Internet was built with taxpayer money. Without net neutrality, we will be handing over control to a handful of extremely large corporations—like ATT, Comcast, Verizon, Charter—who have their own motivations to throttle competitors’ applications and websites. And they have virtual monopolies or duopolies in much of America, resulting in Americans paying  higher prices for slower internet access than citizens of most other developed countries.

The end of net neutrality will definitely affect not only how much you pay for Internet access, but whether you’ll be able to sell your goods on the Internet, which programs you’ll be able to have access to (and how much you’ll pay) to help you run your business. And if you or someone you know wants to start a new business, whether you’ll succeed will be in the hands of an internet giant.

There is a glimmer of hope. Not on the federal level, but from the states. State legislators are gearing up to protect businesses and consumers in their states by passing bills protecting net neutrality in their states. If such a bill is happening in your state, be sure to write your state representatives and governors to support it. Small businesses need to have their voices heard.

“I thought this country was built on the idea of competition. What happened to that idea?” So said Cooky Capiaux, my 84-year-old friend, when I was explaining to her the concept of net neutrality. Cooky understood what’s at stake in a nutshell: if equal access to the Internet is not protected, then the playing field is not equal, and it will be far harder for many companies and people to compete. If an 84-year-old non-techie woman can understand this, why can’t Congress?


Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2018

This article originally ran in USA Today on May 30, 2018