For years, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) and a broad coalition of technology and real estate industry partners have urged the FCC to uphold the former rules under which Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operate and can do business. “Net neutrality” is the previous consensus position, meaning that internet service providers can’t speed up, slow down or block any websites or applications.
That consensus shifted sharply on December 14th, as the FCC released a plan to repeal provisions ensuring net neutrality and allow ISPs to begin deciding what type of content and sites their customers may access on their service.
Currently, the internet is fairly egalitarian; if you have a connection, a computer or mobile device, and a browser, you can go to whatever website you like. The agreement you’ve entered into with your ISP states that they can’t dictate where you decide to look for news, what recipe websites you’re allowed to access, or, more relevant to Realtors®, where you might look to find your next home. Right now you’re allowed to begin your search wherever you like, and follow it wherever it takes you. You’re just as likely to land on the website of a small local Realtor® office as on a major listing aggregation site like Realtor.com, Zillow or RedFin. You let your wish list, location and other criteria guide your search, and your browser takes you wherever they lead, regardless of the size of the company who’s got the listing.
The loss of net neutrality has the potential to change that experience in profound ways.
Have you ever watched a sports talk show and said to yourself, “These guys are idiots, I could do a way better job than they could!” Now, you may or may not be right about your sports-talk potential, but the way the internet is currently regulated, you have many opportunities to prove it. You could start a blog, a podcast, write analysis for a small sports site, post your thoughts on Twitter or Facebook, or get yourself a nice webcam and post them on YouTube, seated behind a desk wearing a tie, just like the pros.
If you’re good enough and your content is relevant, you can succeed. Countless people in myriad professions and specialties do it every day, and they do it on the strength of a neutral platform, where their thoughts and ideas are just as accessible (just click a link!) as those produced by major media companies with huge advertising budgets and institutional power.
If you think of the internet as if it were cable TV (something you’re likely to get from the exact same company, by the way) right now, you get every channel imaginable for the same rate. You decide what you see. But what if your internet options looked like this?
This is the future. And in that future, large companies who have the ability to pay will dominate the landscape online, as they do in most other media. Small and large players in the real estate industry could be affected if internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon create fast and slow lanes of web traffic based on financial arrangements they’ve made with content providers. The mom-and-pop Realtor® office that has the perfect home listed for you (or your next client) might not be able to pay enough for you to see it. Your office’s ISP may decide the MLS vendor you use is not paying enough, and slow their traffic to a crawl. Or it may decide to make your competitor’s advertisements and website load much faster than yours, based on what they’re willing to pay. Under the new rules, there’s nothing stopping them.
Ninety-three percent of NAR members use the internet to conduct and promote business. NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall said in a statement:
“Technology is an increasingly important part of the way our membership delivers its services, whether through streaming video, drone technology, or other applications. We remain concerned that a rollback of net-neutrality rules could lead to blocking, throttling, or discriminating against Internet traffic, or even ‘paid prioritization’ arrangements that put small mom-and-pop businesses at a disadvantage in the marketplace. We will continue working with the FCC to share these concerns and ensure a fair and open internet where everyone can succeed.”
It’s a new day on the internet. There is still time to ensure these changes are implemented fairly and responsibly. But a major barrier to those goals has fallen, and time will tell what the consequences are.