Freedom of speech is fundamental to the U.S. constitution, but the latest developments in the dispute over net neutrality are putting this basic human right under threat, argues Sovrn's CEO, Walter Knapp.

The internet as the great leveller

Net neutrality is the single most important attribute of the internet and is vital to maintaining free speech. It enables a level playing field where small start-up websites can compete on an equal footing with larger platforms and everyone can get their message heard. Net neutrality allows smaller, independent publishers who are experts in their field and passionate about their subject area to create high quality niche content that can be accessed equally by all.

There are tens of thousands of niche publishers and content creators out there doing just that. Take a look at Blavity, for instance, a user-generated editorial content site that encourages black millennials to own their story and share their perspective, and is accessed by over 7 million visitors each month. Or CafeMom, a website that drives an ongoing conversation around parenthood and allows parents as well as parenting experts to seek and share tips and advice.

For internet consumers, these niche websites provide a treasure trove of valuable, high quality content in specific subject interest areas that attract and engage real people. Publishers who chose to use advertising sponsorship to support their craft, provide marketers access to highly engaged people with particular interests and hobbies. The result? Exceptionally effective advertising campaigns that reach interested consumers in the appropriate context.

The internet is by design an open platform, shared by all. This foundation of openness enables free speech, an open exchange of ideas, creativity, innovation and enterprise. As an industry we have a responsibility to keep it that way. In 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sought to do just that by ruling in favor of net neutrality and reclassifying Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. This imposed strict rules on paid fast lanes, speed throttling, and website and app prioritization or blocking, ensuring all consumers get equal and neutral access to the entire web through their chosen provider.

Net neutrality is at risk once again with proposals to reverse this regulation, reclassifying ISPs as Title I information services. In May, the FCC voted to start the process of dismantling the 2015 rules that keep the internet free and impartial, sparking widespread controversy and leading to widespread calls to action.

The current FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai announced plans to gut net neutrality – as the US prepares for Thanksgiving – with a vote to follow quickly afterwards. Once this happens, it will be much harder to stop. Congress, however, has oversight over the FCC and can slow this down or even force the plan to be abandoned.

So why is maintaining net neutrality so vital? and what would the wider impact be if ISPs are allowed to provide internet access on their own terms?

The beginning of the end to free speech

If the 2015 regulations are reversed, a powerful few will be able to take control over how people consume, share and converse online. This is deeply concerning for the future of free speech. The few could choose to slow down some sites or give advantage to others, either because they own them or because certain groups pay for preferential treatment. This would split the internet into fast lanes for those able to pay, and inferior lanes for everyone else. A chosen few may be able to afford speed, influence and access, smaller and independent voices will not. Money and influence will become more important than quality, expertise, and a passion for producing unique, innovative and inspiring content.

The impact of reversing net neutrality on independent publishers and content creators is self-evident but it will also have a negative effect on each of us as consumers, who will be reliant on content provided by those few who pay for control and preference. It will further limit the opportunity for marketers to reach highly engaged audiences via these unique channels.

Net neutrality matters. The internet enables a free and open exchange of ideas where anyone can conceive, create and publish their content and where it can be accessed, shared and consumed equally by all.