The potential repeal of the 2015 net neutrality rules that were implemented in the U.S. by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has sparked an outcry from consumers, consumer rights groups, businesses and trade organizations.

Under a proposal unveiled last week, ISPs would, among other things, no longer be banned from charging companies to prioritize the delivery of their content or restricting access to particular online services that utilize significant resources.

While the most talked about concerns relate to consumers and bandwidth-intensive services like Netflix and YouTube, some are suggesting that the changes should worry brands. For instance, Joshua Lowcock, the U.S. executive vice president and chief digital and innovation officer at agency UM, told AdWeek that the changes could impact ad prices and viewability.

AdWeek's Marty Swant explained:

Lowcock said brands might have to start paying a premium for quality bandwidth or be pressured to go with one media company owned by an ISP versus another that isn't.

For example, in an environment where net neutrality is absent, an ad being served on a website might not load at a reasonable speed for a consumer, prompting them to skip ahead and therefore messing up a campaign's metrics.

Is this scenario realistic? It's hard to say.

Obviously, sans net neutrality rules, ISPs will have far more leeway to experiment with and implement different service models, but that certainly doesn't mean that they will or that they'll take their efforts to hypothetical extremes.

For their part, in the wake of protests aimed at convincing regulators to keep net neutrality rules, major ISPs have argued that they will still have to adhere to rules that demand transparency and forbid practices that are anti-competitive or deceptive. And one of the country's largest ISPs, Comcast, has made its own net neutrality promise to customers.

Not surprisingly, many people don't trust ISPs and there are certainly arguments to be made that some level of mistrust is warranted.

But back to brands and the net neutrality concerns specific to them. Let's look at two of the biggest.

Competition and innovation

According to AdWeek's Swant, “With user experience and online accessibility a top priority for many brands, creating a barrier where some larger brands can afford top speeds and others can't could create even more barriers for challenger brands or startups to compete.”

This isn't a totally illegitimate concern. But the reality is that challenger brands and startups already face significant barriers. The duopoly of Google and Facebook is stronger than ever and absent a regulatory crackdown, is only likely to get stronger. Facebook, for its part, has proven its formidable ability to thwart competition from startups through acquisition or copycatting.

Other dominant companies, including Amazon and Apple, have also proven they're capable of doing the same.

While this doesn't mean that brands should pretend net neutrality is a non-issue without the potential for impact, it's also important to recognize that forces hostile to competition and innovation are already at work and these are creating significant challenges that aren't merely hypothetical. 

If the brand world is going to fret about the repeal of net neutrality and its potential impact on competition and innovation, it would also be wise to consider how it's funding the very forces that are already diminishing competition and innovation in the digital economy.

Ad performance

When it comes to concerns about ad performance – the aforementioned concern that “an ad being served on a website might not load at a reasonable speed for a consumer, prompting them to skip ahead and therefore messing up a campaign's metrics” – there's an irony that shouldn't be lost on brands: it's their digital advertising that has played a large role in the degradation of web page performance.

Tired of ads that bog pages down and interfere with user experience, consumers have embraced ad blockers, creating a crisis that has even forced the world's largest digital ad player, Google, to take action.

Frankly, consumer dislike (or even disgust) for advertising is the biggest threat brands face and if brands are really concerned about ad performance, there are actions they can and should be taking today. 

So what should brands do about net neutrality?

At the end of the day, the possible repeal of net neutrality rules is important and brands will want to make sure they're voicing their concerns and trying as best they can to protect their interests.

But they should also recognize that the fight over net neutrality is but one battle, and they have other opportunities to promote and defend the principles behind some of their biggest net neutrality concerns.

Patricio Robles

Published 27 November, 2017 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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