I’m not the first person to say that if you want to get Americans to care about an issue, hit them in their pocketbooks. Which is why Netflix—purveyor of fine streaming content to more than 40 million Americans, and consumer of about a third of all Internet traffic (as of 2012)—is the one company that may be able to get the public to notice, and maybe even care about the fuzzy, hard-to-explain-in-a-bumper-sticker, why-should-I-care issue of net neutrality.
As you may have read, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled this month against the concept of net neutrality. In English: They decided that Internet providers didn’t have to treat all traffic differently, and could slow (perhaps a competitor?) or speed (perhaps a paid sponsor or partner?) different content sources as they please.
Of course, the one company that has the most to lose from this decision is Netflix, which has the distinction of being an entity that simultaneously gobbles up the largest share of Internet traffic, relies the most on speedy service (you think those HD videos are gonna look as crisp under the threat of throttle?), and is the most threatening to the business core business model that cable ISPs are built on (hello cord-cutters!).
So, despite the fact that Netflix is downplaying any affects of the ruling on their business, it most definitely had an immediate and noticeable impact on the company’s stock price (an impact that was mitigated by a recent announcement largely favorable subscriber numbers—what a roller coaster!).
Still, Netflix is the one company that could get the general public to take notice that net neutrality actually matters. That’s because, quite simply, if and when 40 million Americans wake up to a significantly higher monthly bill, something’s gonna give.
Now, assuming cable ISPs do throttle Netflix or strong-arm it into coughing up cash to stream its content at favorable speeds and bit-rates, the company might be well advised to use this as an opportunity to launch a PR offensive that lets the public know exactly what is happening and how it affects them. One of the reasons few people outside the tech world seem to have heard about net neutrality is that the issue has yet to actually affect the life of anybody in any meaningful way. A huge chunk of the American public suddenly paying more for a bill that many view as indispensable? That’s something even politicians notice.
So, dear Netflix, here’s my totally unsolicited advice: Use your reach, use your presence in so many households, and the fact that you are a rare company for which people still have the warm-and-fuzzies to let the American public know that their beloved streaming service is under assault. Then if the ISPs do decide to play hardball with you in the future, the public—and politicians—might actually have your and net neutrality’s back.