Over the weekend, the New York Times published a story noting that the second-largest Internet provider in France, called Free, is blocking advertisements as part of its new default settings. This means that, unless users change the default, its 5.2 million customers will not see any advertisements when they browse the Internet. Whoa! While this is largely viewed as a swipe at Google, the real victim is reported to be small web sites that rely on advertising to finance their content. As one commenter noted, this type of policy means that “smaller sites with only an online presence may close.” Organizations, like news sites, which support their businesses with advertising are likely to be pressured into paying the ISP so that users can view advertisements.
In the past, critics of net neutrality or open Internet policies have criticized them as a “solution in search of a problem.” Although it wasn’t a credible critique before, the new ad blocking policy makes it more clear that the problem is on our doorstep. And while critics like to claim that it is really a fight between large companies like Google and the big Internet providers like AT&T, the truth is that small content providers have the most to lose. While large content providers have always been able to pay to distribute their content, the little guys, like small entreprenuers, churches, and non-profits that have benefitted the most from the power of the Internet to distribute content world wide in a heartbeat. These small organizations might have to revive the PR budget lines they eliminated in the past in order to pay to get their content in front of their target audiences–a web site will no longer be enough.
This is not to say that any of the large Internet companies have a nepharious plot to shut down small entrepreneurs or nonprofit organizations. But they do all have strong incentives to extract as much revenue as possible as they devise new business models for Internet provision. And as I’ve described in the past, the risk we all face is not necessarily of outright censorship, but of policies that cramp the flexibilty of small and nonprofit users (like the $10 donation limit on fundraising via text message). These policies are much harder to police or change because they are subtle at first–but the limitations are significant–just ask any fundraiser about the importance of their donor fundraising targets. The debate in France is just the next important step in this critical debate.