Many of the writers, musicians and visual artists I know are vaguely aware that the Internet is under threat, but they haven’t looked too deeply into the issue. Maybe the problem is that because Net neutrality affects everyone, artists don’t recognize it as an issue they need to get particularly incensed about. Or perhaps, like most Americans, they are intimidated by the technical aura of the debate — technology is something creative types aren’t supposed to understand. Artists aren’t engineers after all.
Net neutrality, however, is hardly rocket science. One doesn’t have to know how to code to understand what’s actually at stake: money, and the fact that Internet service providers (ISPs), which already rake in huge profits, want to make more of it. These ISPs — the cable and cellphone incumbents we pay to access the Internet — want to charge companies extra so their applications load faster or don’t count against customers’ monthly data plans. “A service provider could prevent an end user from accessing Netflix, or the New York Times, or even this Court’s own Web site, unless the Web site paid the provider to allow customer access,” the Federal Communications Commission warned in a 2012 filing to a federal appeals court. In other words, ISPs want to force big players to purchase preferential treatment, while those who can’t afford extortion fees get stuck with inferior service.
Artists should quake at the prospect of an Internet that works better for those with deep pockets. A handful of big stars may benefit from this model — for example, directors or actors working on shows produced by NBCUniversal, which recently merged with cable giant Comcast (which hopes to merge with cable giant Time Warner) — but the majority of independents will be worse off.
The problem, however isn’t just the ISPs — Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon and AT&T — that currently control crucial Internet infrastructure, the onramps to the digital domain. Artists also need to worry about the companies that could conceivably agree to pay for prioritized delivery: that is to say, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and the like. Artists have long been told that these companies would help liberate them from the grip of the old media system. Unfortunately, the leading tech firms increasingly resemble the legacy media many thought they would inevitably overthrow.
Artists need to take note: Net neutrality may be the biggest media and communications policy battle ever waged, and the stakes could not be higher for independent voices. Unlike the old days when different mediums had discrete distribution channels, we are now utterly dependent on one network for everything: we read books and articles, watch television and films and listen to music online, just as we study, work and socialize there. The network underpinning all of this must be neutral and nondiscriminatory if we are to make good on the remarkable democratic potential of the Internet. Creators need to join the fight to defend this fundamental attribute of the digital ecosystem before it’s too late.
The author of this post, Astra Taylor, and Jeff Mangum of the indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel joined dozens of other musicians, actors, filmmakers, writers, comedians and artists in co-signing a letter submitted to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler today, urging him to reconsider new proposed rules “that would kill — rather than protect — Net neutrality and allow rampant discrimination online.” Read it at the Future of Music Coalition’s website.