FCC Proposal Means Two Speeds for Ads Online, Not Just Content

'Paid Prioritization' Could Threaten Net Neutrality

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The future of cable regulation could have serious consequences for the advertising industry. For many, "net neutrality" -- making sure that all digital content is treated equally by cable companies -- is a fundamental freedom that should be protected through regulation. On the other side, cable companies argue that bandwidth-hogging content from services like Netflix should pay a premium to ensure their content streams super-fast.

Let's assume that the FCC's May 2014 proposal to allow two-speed content is allowed to persist (they call it "paid prioritization"). Net neutrality will, in effect, be over. Some content will be delivered to consumers more slowly than they'd like, while paid content will sail through.

While the government, politicians, Silicon Valley, and of course the cable companies wrestle with the issue, we in the advertising industry should understand that our actions could imperil the future of net neutrality, even with the best of intentions.

Advertising in this "two-speed" digital world of digital content will present various complications. For example, should brands advertise at all on non-prioritized content, for fear of being associated with slow content and frustrated consumers? Or will ad-serving networks charge advertisers to ensure that their digital advertising loads at top speed -- potentially producing a scenario wherein consumers only see ads while the rest of their (desired) content loads.

Perhaps brands would forego advertising altogether in favor of sponsoring "fast" content (featuring, presumably, their own branded content) as a service to cable subscribers whose content providers refuse to pay. And imagine the almost comic complexity of evaluating digital ad performance ("so tell me -- how did we do on slow sites versus the fast ones?").

Clearly, allowing for "two-speed" content will create "two-speed" advertising, a result of the powerful incentives to focus only on "fast" content, at a higher cost, of course. More troubling, however, is the possibility that advertisers will exacerbate the problem, as their efforts will increase the pressure on content providers to "pay up" or lose advertising revenue, reducing the level playing field for content that net neutrality advocates propose. Digital advertising innovations have generally helped brands (and, arguably, consumers as well), but these innovations will be long forgotten if net neutrality fails and the actions of our industry, aided and abetted by a "two-speed" content world, make us the fall guy.

Our next innovation comes down to preventing content providers from passing the net neutrality buck, literally, to consumers through higher advertising and marketing costs of a "two-speed" internet.

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