Here, a monthly perspective from Consumers Union on the latest challenges—and possible solutions—facing U.S. consumers today. See archived letters.
Few small businesses thrive without hard work, a decent product, and persistence. But they also need to have a fair shot at participating in the market.
The Very Rev. Bernard McCoy was dismayed by the high cost of replacing a printer cartridge. McCoy, the steward of temporal affairs at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank in Sparta, Wis., didn't understand why black dust and a bit of ink cost so much. Then he learned how astronomical the markup on toner can be.
And so, LaserMonks was born. An online retailer, it won't put office-supply companies out of business anytime soon, but it sells a lot of toner cartridges, as well as dog biscuits and other goods. Profits go toward the monastery's operating costs and to various charities. "We can compete on price and quality if it's on a level playing field," said Sarah Caniglia, the company's business development manager.
The problem is, there are no regulations requiring that level playing field, known as "network neutrality." Without them, and aggressive enforcement, Internet service providers could block or slow traffic to and from any Web sites or services they choose, including free Internet phone services, streaming video, and political content. And well-heeled businesses could cut deals with ISPs to move their data faster than that of smaller companies such as LaserMonks.
Success for most small online businesses rests in part on the idea that networks that deliver the Internet should treat all content, sites, and applications equally regardless of source, recipient, or message.
Since the Internet was born, consumers have had unfettered access to content and ideas, and their choices and purchases have determined whether a Web site, application, or service succeeded or failed. Now that precept is under attack.
Net neutrality is tacitly grounded in a set of principles adopted by the Federal Communications Commission several years ago, but those guidelines are, in essence, voluntary. This fall the FCC began to codify and enhance them into regulations. The Obama administration, the FCC, and members of Congress from both parties support an open Internet. So does Consumers Union.
Net neutrality is critical to today's market. Consumers deserve unrestricted access to lawful Web sites, and businesses deserve to compete freely.