Online privacy is under fire.  Again.

It seems like every couple of years we suffer yet another attack on online privacy by the politicians, and I was always a BIG fan of Tom Wheeler’s running of the FCC.  He was very fair, in my opinion, and very much in favor of the consumer and protecting our online privacy.

Before you close this tab and stop reading what I’m going to tell you, I want you to think about a few things, as a business owner who likely does some form of online advertising – even if it’s just Google My Business Local or Facebook Business Local search results.

Here’s a quick rundown of how net neutrality works, or rather worked, last year:

Wheeler labeled ISPs as common carriers just like telephone or other publicly regulated utility services (water, power, etc), meaning that no one using the lines gets preferential treatment to deliver their bits and bytes.

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This was a result of a battle in 2014 over whether or not ISPs like Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, etc were going to be able to charge companies like Netflix, for instance, more money to deliver their content to your computer.

In case you’ve forgotten, or were on Mars, there was a GIANT uproar on the internet back then, and millions of Americans signed petitions to keep the internet ‘neutral’ – clarifying a position that had been held at the FCC all the way back to 2004.

In 2010, we got the Open Internet Order, specifying these things:

  • Transparency: Consumers and innovators have a right to know the basic performance characteristics of their Internet access and how their network is being managed;
  • No Blocking: This includes a right to send and receive lawful traffic, prohibits the blocking of lawful content, apps, services and the connection of non-harmful devices to the network;
  • Level Playing Field: Consumers and innovators have a right to a level playing field. This means a ban on unreasonable content discrimination. There is no approval for so-called “pay for priority” arrangements involving fast lanes for some companies but not others;
  • Network Management: This is an allowance for broadband providers to engage in reasonable network management. These rules don’t forbid providers from offering subscribers tiers of services or charging based on bandwidth consumed;
  • Mobile: The provisions adopted today do not apply as strongly to mobile devices, though some provisions do apply. Of those that do are the broadly applicable rules requiring transparency for mobile broadband providers and prohibiting them from blocking websites and certain competitive applications;
  • Vigilance: The order creates an Open Internet Advisory Committee to assist the Commission in monitoring the state of Internet openness and the effects of the rules.

Now the internet is under attack again, this time by the appointment of Ajit Pai to the chief dude in charge spot –

Pai is just not a believer in the common man, from what I can tell.  Pai was appointed to the FTC by President Obama to fill a seat that was required to be held by a Republican.  Pai also worked for Verizon Communications several years prior.

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Pai voted against the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, which served as the basis for net neutrality regulations.  He said in December 2016 that he believed net neutrality’s days were “numbered”, and was described by the New York Times as a stickler on conservative interpretations of telecommunications law and the limits of the F.C.C.’s authority.

What does this have to do with online advertising or online privacy?

Wow, I thought you’d never ask!  In a nutshell, internet users, specifically American internet users, have come to realize (again), that their privacy is under fire, and they are hopping mad.  (Full disclosure: I am hopping mad, too)

Last week, Pai and the Republican led Congress pushed a bill through that enables ISPs to spy on their customers; it could lead to ISPs tinkering with the content that a viewer sees online – changing content, inserting their own ads, selling browsing history, and so on.  All very dangerous stuff, if you value your hard won privacy and want to keep your business to yourself.

How will consumers react to online advertising knowing their online privacy is potentially compromised?

As a business transacting online, you can count on your prospects and customers being much more wary of sharing any information with you, voluntarily or otherwise.  Given the nature of information breaches that have been very public, very substantial and very damaging (Yahoo, Target, River City Media, etc) to any number of people, we’re already at risk with the people we serve and want to do business with currently or in the future.

We are all going to need to work twice as hard to prove to prospects and existing customers that we value their privacy and respect their ownership of their own data.

We are also going to have to be extremely vigilant to make sure that the powers that currently be don’t enable those one step up the chain (IPS – Comcast, ATT, Verizon, etc) to steal data from us that doesn’t belong to them.

The first thing you can do is to upgrade your business website to HTTPS, if you haven’t already.

Encrypting a customers data – any kind of data – while it’s traveling through time and space is the first step on our side to maintaining a trusting relationship with our customers.  It’s definitely a way to demonstrate our respect for their online privacy.

It’s not a complete solution to the problem but with free SSL certificates available from Let’s Encrypt, and cPanel automatically managing the renewals for you, it’s a very simple, cost effective, easy way to provide an additional bit of trustworthiness for anyone that’s thinking about filling in a form or buying something from your site.   If you’re not familiar with LE, a quick trip to the front page of their site will show you the list of organizations sponsoring their effort – NOT ONE OF WHICH IS AN ISP.

There will be many more things to come in the months ahead – I’m sure we’ll be signing petitions and perhaps marching in the streets; it’s unfortunate that the online privacy of the people is one of the first things on the chopping block, but we don’t have to stand still and allow it to be taken.

Net neutrality is critical for small businesses –

Can you really afford to pay more money to reach the same number of people?  If an ISP decides that they want to charge you a ‘tax’ to deliver your message to consumers, will you be able to absorb the cost or will you have to charge more for the end product?

And what if Google Adwords, Facebook Advertising, etc becomes more expensive because they are made to pay a ‘tax’ to get their content into the hands of those who want to search, speak to their friends, or just browse the latest in great cat videos?

The trickle down effect will be ugly, costly and could put a lot of small business owners out of business, given the ubiquitousness of mobile and the absolute need to reach out to prospective and current customers via their mobile devices.

Be vigilant and proactive and show your support for your customers’ online privacy.