Entrepreneurs

Here's how people who depend on the internet for their income are dealing with the net neutrality repeal

Demonstrators rally outside the Federal Communication Commission building to protest against the end of net neutrality rules December 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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Demonstrators rally outside the Federal Communication Commission building to protest against the end of net neutrality rules December 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.

As Spotify streamers and Netflix bingers grapple with the looming threat of having to pay more for fast internet in the wake of the FCC's repeal on net neutrality rules, many people who make their livelihood online are scrambling, worried that the future of their businesses could be at stake.

The FCC's decision this month to rollback Obama-era net neutrality rules has been met with fierce backlash from the National Small Business Association, e-commerce entrepreneurs and side-hustlers alike. They fear that if internet service providers can speed up, slow down or even restrict access to certain sites, costs associated with doing business online will go up and they'll lose customers.

Though internet service providers such as AT&T, CNBC owner Comcast and Verizon have made statements reassuring consumers that they support the open internet and do not discriminate against content, many business owners are still sweating it.

Helen Wade opened her shop, The Stockist, selling products like clothing and household goods in Salt Lake City in 2009. Her goal for the new year is to ramp up her online presence. Now, she's worried that the net neutrality repeal could affect her business, particularly if a consumer is looking for a specific product.

"I think for product search, we're just going to get buried," Wade tells CNBC Make It. "Stuff will get pushed to those bigger sites, the Amazons, the bigger stores that can afford to pay to play. And we can't."

Kristi Haner, 25, and her boyfriend, Alex Tiberio, 30, sell handmade sterling silver and turquoise jewelry online via their Etsy shop, Gothic Mountain Jewelers. They live in a cabin in the backcountry of Crested Butte, Colorado, and with the road 4 miles away, the internet accounts for 95 percent of their business.

"If this actually happens and pages take longer to load, that will directly affect our sales," Haner tells CNBC Make It. "I think if we were to branch out on our own website, it would be hard for small businesses like us to compete."

If online sales dwindle, Haner says, they will have to try selling their goods at craft fairs and farmer's markets instead, which is more labor-intensive, time-consuming and could be difficult in the wintertime.

Indeed, Althea Erickson, head of advocacy and impact at Etsy, tells CNBC Make It that the little guys could be pushed out of the competition due to lack of resources and convenience, which sounds eerily familiar, like mom and pop brick-and-mortar shops closing thanks to big box stores' domination over the last decade.

"If [small online businesses'] traffic were slower compared to a larger competitor, then our sellers would likely lose sales. And I think if you kind of expand that out, you see basically small businesses and micro-businesses being harmed at the expense of larger competitors and fewer of them starting and growing over the long term."

She notes that in the week before the vote, nearly 15,000 sellers on the site sent over 48,000 messages to Congress about the issue.

There are also broader concerns.

Sarah Souther, founder of a Nashville-based candy company, has a retail store but also sells her company's confections online. Souther said that when she founded The Bang Candy Company in 2010, it was built on the backbone of free internet — she relied on the web to get the word out about her company and make it accessible to consumers. If that becomes cost-prohibitive, there will be consequences.

"That will sort of stop completely any innovation, and turn what is a wonderful, wonderful world where you can pretty much do whatever you want to into a great big, homogenized nightmare," Souther tells CNBC Make It.

Others have echoed a similar argument about stifling innovation, from a group of 21 tech pioneers, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who wrote an open letter on net neutrality, to Twitter and Netflix, both of which rely on users having fast and cheap internet.

However, with procedural hurdles still to come and court battles likely imminent, Erickson emphasizes that the fight for net neutrality is not over and Etsy, for one, will continue to mobilize their sellers on the issue.

And Souther says she is confident in her entrepreneurial peers.

"There's always new ways to do things and that's life," she said. "Change is inevitable. We always find new ways of doing things, and if you're an entrepreneur, that's what your brain should be, that's how your brain needs to work.

"You need to always be finding a way to do something different, and do it better and do it cheaper. That's the whole key. I'm sure entrepreneurs of the future will figure it out, and it's these sorts of restraints sometimes that make us do better things."

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Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.