Imagine that there are two lanes leading you to a potential donor. Now imagine that the lane that you are in slows and the adjacent lane keeps moving. The adjacent lane is moving more swiftly to your prospect, but it costs more money to merge in. Is your organization in position to change lanes?
The scenario underscores the potential impact of a loss of net neutrality, the principle that prohibits favoritism when it comes to Internet access, could have on nonprofits. President Donald Trump’s administration has reportedly taken interest in revisiting current net neutrality regulations.
“Anytime you’re talking about a fast lane and a slow lane, it starts to worry us in the nonprofit sector, a cash-strapped sector,” said Christopher Worman, senior director of alliances and community engagement for TechSoup in San Francisco, Calif. “If you segment the Internet, they wind up in the slow lane, the majority of them.”
The issue is not just one of how long it takes for an organization’s website to load. Nonprofits have been leaders in the social media space, Worman said, an arena that has both been low cost and a means of connecting with the next generation of supporters. Restricted access could create a loss of headway there. There are also questions of freedom of speech and information. The Internet presently is, with limited exception, an open forum of free dialogue. When restrictions come into place, a slippery slope can ensue with a lack of clarity regarding who sets the rules, who appoints those who set the rules and how politics come into play.
TechSoup has on occasion created content around net neutrality and held a webinar on the subject about a year ago with the appreciation that nonprofits it seeks to help can be harmed by a bifurcation of the Internet. The subject hasn’t come up much among the groups TechSoup works with, which makes sense, according to Worman. The average nonprofit is not particularly large or savvy and focuses tend to be on missions as opposed to trends in technology.
That doesn’t mean such conversations shouldn’t be taking place. Worman believes that organizations should try to understand the effects of net neutrality now as opposed to having a reactive conversation in the future. “The main thing that I would really want them to do is some scenario thinking,” Worman said, referring to day-to-day organizational usage of operational necessities such as social media and the cloud. “If everything took twice as long, what would that mean in delivering critical human services in your community?”
Net neutrality, for those who might be unfamiliar, has been a point of divide for more than a decade. Free Press has to preserve it for the past 12 years, according to Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy. Initially referred to as the “First Amendment of the Internet,” the net neutrality debate first surfaced under President George W. Bush and FCC Chair Michael Powell when Internet providers were reclassified in such a way that allowed for the blocking of content, said Karr.
Free Press, based in Florence, Mass., and Washington, D.C., has been active in seeking reclassification of Internet providers from the FCC and has taken to Congress to combat potential liftings of regulations. Despite the technical nature of net neutrality, grassroots support has been present from both sides of the aisle, according to Karr, with Free Press working with other organizations in coalition during preservation efforts.
Trump’s transition team includes individuals tied to anti-net neutrality think tanks. And, the two Republican FCC commissioners staying on board also have strong net-neutrality positions, according to Karr. “It’s fair to look at the tea leaves and say that net neutrality is in a very precarious position,” he said.
Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) had, too, been keeping a watchful eye on Trump’s transition team,”100 percent” expecting hostility and efforts to repeal decisions protecting net neutrality. In addition to political will, companies that have opposed previously determined regulations might come out to have issues re-heard, he said.
Falcon noted that any changes could not be done instantly and that public notification and comment would take place along with judicial oversight. The first step, from EFF’s perspective would be to make the public aware and have concerns demonstrated both to the FCC and elected representatives. “This can be powerful … there is a desire for open-user experience,” Falcon said.
Of focus for EFF in the coming months and years will be transparency and monitoring the treatment of Internet traffic. If there was no rule requiring transparency of Internet traffic, EFF engineers would have to “get under the hood” and it would be more difficult if not impossible to get a sense as to how various content is treated, Falcon said. Allowing, through economics, control of where users go has the potential to slow start-up organizations and “gets rid of what makes the Internet special in the first place,” he said.
EFF counts itself among the organizations seeking to combat potential deregulation. In the short term, efforts will be made to inform the public of the potential threat, EFF placing an ad on the tech-focused website Wired late last year. Continuing steps will include policy monitoring and mobilizing the public.
The last time net neutrality was under serious attack, in 2015, Portland, Ore.-based NTEN organized comments and provided them to the FCC. It also took the opportunity to take a stance in favor of net neutrality and did some educational work on the principle’s impact, according to CEO Amy Sample Ward. She anticipates NTEN will take a similar approach, with advocacy efforts moving in parallel with preparation for potential changes, during the next 12 months.
The fast-lane, slow-lane analogy is a common concept used to illustrate net neutrality in a way easy for those unfamiliar with technology to understand. For nonprofits, the potential effect on cloud-based services, which has allowed for reduced costs and greater mobility and efficiency, further illustrates the day-to-day impact of a loss of net neutrality.
The other piece that is often less focused on is actual censorship, Ward said. If factors such as organizational budget impact connectivity, the risk is that an organization’s voice might not be heard in the same way as other entities.
“That, I think, should really startle organizations, she said. “So many nonprofits are working on things that aren’t being worked on in their communities. If people don’t know that they are working on them, people’s lives won’t be improved.” With a diminished ability to engage with clients online, recruit donors and seek grants “we are essentially putting organizations out of business,” Ward added.
She hopes that the philanthropic community will respond with support should changes in regulations harm nonprofits’ ability to connect or create additional expense. She is pessimistic, however, seeing connectivity costs likely to fall under capacity building, a realm that has not thrived philanthropically. As organizations potentially need to prepare for such a reality, NTEN will be working with nonprofits on education, preparedness and advocacy, according to Ward.
Karr believes that Free Press’ efforts will have a more rigid tone. In addition to net neutrality, Free Press works on issues such as freedom of the press, surveillance and privacy concerns. Such issues were of concern under President Barack Obama’s watch, but more so under Trump, he said. Karr anticipates stronger efforts around grassroots and coalition-building around the issue moving forward and a harder-lined position by Free Press under Trump.
“We will continue to be outspoken on behalf of the communication rights of people, but we’re also less willing to compromise in any way with an administration that takes a position against communication rights of individuals,” he said. “Our stance is more one of resistance under a Trump administration.”