As we begin to get our heads around what the internet will look like without net neutrality, one thing is clear: Women will be put out of business.
On December 14, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted along party lines to end net neutrality, ushering in an age where Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon would have free reign over your internet. Various efforts are currently underway to keep net neutrality in place, including a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of 22 states and a Senate resolution to block its repeal (which is currently just one vote shy of passing). Still, there’s no guarantee these measures will work. Should they fail, women with small businesses would be particularly impacted as ISPs would have the capability, incentive, and legal authority to block legal content, slow down your internet speeds, and offer fast lanes for those who can afford it (typically not women entrepreneurs).
There are so many layers to debate, but commonly overlooked is the fact that the open internet has opened the doors for women entrepreneurs and creatives of color. I am one such entrepreneur. I had been interested in entrepreneurship from a young age but never imagined having the tools needed to start a business, especially as a young girl of color. Luckily, when I was fifteen I stumbled upon Society6, and it allowed me to create my own unique designs and sell them to anyone. I did not need funding to start the shop, manufacture the products, or advertise, because the website takes care of that. It was exciting to be able to turn my hobby and form of self-expression into a source of income, and to discover that people enjoyed my work enough to purchase it. Society6, and other sites like it, is able to exist because of an open Internet, helping thousands of creators start their own businesses.
Without net neutrality, that experience would never have been possible. If it is repealed, millions of other women won’t have access to the tools I was able to use to create an online business. If net neutrality goes away, women entrepreneurs, women-owned small businesses, and their consumers would face increased costs that would reduce their ability to innovate and compete. It will be significantly harder for women, especially those without their own funds, to start their own online businesses in the first place. Without net neutrality, companies like Google and Amazon would easily be able to pay to have their products prioritized over female entrepreneurs and their small businesses. Althea Erickson, Head of Advocacy and Impact at Etsy, says the net neutrality rules have “enable[d] millions of microbusinesses to start and grow online,” with Etsy having 1.9 million sellers. It’s worth noting that while about one-third of businesses nationwide are owned by women, nearly 90 percent of Etsy’s sellers are women. Net neutrality is so important to these sellers that Etsy has said it simply “would not exist without net neutrality.”
If women can get past the first hurdle and start an online business, next, under the new rules, they would be required to pay for fast lanes. Time is crucial to both users and creators, especially now when users will leave a website that takes more than three seconds to load. Every second counts towards your business’s reputation and customer retention. Overall, increased costs would cause product prices to rise, harming consumers and reducing sales. Small businesses will not stand a chance against larger, established companies if net neutrality is truly gone, and if an entrepreneur cannot afford to jump these hurdles, her business will never see the light of day.
The democratization of entrepreneurship is a result of the open internet. Consumers, rather than ISPs, have had the ability to choose what businesses will flourish. It gave women access to unprecedented resources thanks to crowdfunding platforms and social media and allowed women to innovate by focusing on their ideas instead of on outside funding.
Women are 72% more likely to operate home-based businesses because of the increased barriers to entry they face. Women often juggle multiple obligations at once and struggle to find outside funding, making the flexibility of a home-based business more suitable for them.
Mothers and women of color struggle with unemployment and a larger pay gap than child-free and white women face. Women of color also start more businesses than white women, due to economic necessity. According to The 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, while the number of women-owned businesses grew 114 percent from 1997 to 2017, firms owned by women of color grew at more than four times that rate (467%).
Net neutrality is crucial for women of color precisely because of that growth rate. For every ten women-owned businesses launched since 2007, eight were started by women of color. In the past nine years, there’s been a 137-percent increase in Latina-owned businesses, a larger rise than that among any other demographic group in the U.S. It is necessary to support that growth so we can ensure other women of color face fewer obstacles when trying to find jobs and, in turn, a comfortable environment.
Women of color’s businesses tend to grow more slowly because it is more difficult for women of color to get outside funding than white men. Women who want to start their own businesses often have to fund it themselves and with help from friends and family. Net neutrality has allowed women of color to rely much less on outside funding through the use of crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, Patreon, Go Fund Me, and IndieGoGo.
Without net neutrality we would have a two-tiered internet which would end some of the innovation within communities of color because paying to get your content, services, and products to customers faster is just not something many women of color can afford. Adorned by Chi is an online store created by Jacque Aye showcasing “Black women wearing the cutesy and quirky styles” that she loved but rarely saw online. She started it as a creative outlet after quitting her job and does everything from designing to marketing to photography. She acknowledges that having extra fees when starting Adorned by Chi would have been “an additional hurdle at the time” that she did not have to jump. “A neutral net definitely gives small businesses a fighting chance and an easier pathway to finding our customers no matter where they are,” she says.
Eliminating the net neutrality rules would irreparably harm female entrepreneurship, women-owned small businesses, and their consumers. Although the vote has passed, the fight is far from over. To show your support for efforts to block the repeal, call your congresspeople, organize, show up to protests, and continue to make a ruckus.
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