UPDATE: On 12/14/17 the FCC voted to eliminate net neutrality.
In the near future, the internet could experience a fundamental shift away from the free flow of information, towards a system that requires payment to participate. While not an overt form of censorship, it has the potential to push many valuable artistic ideas out of the mainstream. For many talented artists who have undergone the torments of wallowing in obscurity, the deficits of such a system are self evident.
Under the current system, the humble website of a regional artist will load just as fast as any other page on the web. However, if net neutrality rules are suspended, the web will become skewed towards large content providers. Up until now, regulations have ensured that internet service providers (ISPs) provide the same speed of service to every website. Thus, net neutrality created a level playing field for large and small content providers. The rewritten rules will permit priority service for some websites and slow the performance of other sites with artificial bottlenecks.
It is expected that ISPs will reformulate their business model to take advantage of the lax regulation. The first change would likely be to pressure video streaming services such as Netflix or Youtube to pay for speedy content delivery. This will result in higher fees and more advertisements as well as less bandwidth for small websites.
In a best case scenario this proposal will be rejected. If that fails and the ISPs gain the ability to throttle speeds at will, one could hope that this becomes a battle of titans where little folks would remain unaffected. Perhaps even at reduced speeds the slim files that compose an artist’s website will load in a time reasonable to impatient visitors.
In the worst case scenario, a plethora of ills could spill from this pandora’s box. ISPs could approach artists to request fees to deliver content at high speeds. Artists already encounters shakedowns on platforms such as Facebook which solicit money to “promote this post.” In addition, shady operators might cash in on the public’s uncertainty to promise solutions while delivering only snake oil. Lack of net neutrality could also accelerate an existing trend towards an aesthetic shaped by what is most likely to draw a click. While not really a unified artistic school of thought, the web seems to celebrate art that is bizarrely fascinating as well as reward artists creating work linked to a popular figure or rising trend. In a tiered system, the click-worthy art would likely be put in the fast lane of the internet, while works of more subtle beauty would populate the back alleys. Artists who have long chafed at the power of artistic elites, may find themselves facing a whole new set of decision makers passing judgement on what gets seen and what is neglected.
A number of factors have lead to this proposal. The internet’s value as a place to share ideas has been under appreciated and is being overrun by the desires of commerce. Opponents of net neutrality frame the issue as removing excess government regulation. This idea is really just legislation catering to companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon who stand to profit enormously and whose push to make this happen make them the second largest lobby in congress. The current FCC chair, Adjit Pai, is a former Verizon lawyer who has the interests of ISPs close to heart. When the FCC collected comments online, the process was marred by a flood of millions of comments automatically submitted by bots in opposition to net neutrality.1
On the other side there has been a strong push to preserve net neutrality. Analysis of online comments collected by the FCC show that of those comments, ones posted by actual humans showcased an overwhelming support for net neutrality.2 Supporters of preserving a level playing field on the internet have framed the issue in a variety of ways. Some tech giants such as Amazon, Netflix, and Google see it as bad for business or a distortion of their vision of the internet. Other social justice-oriented groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace take principled stances based on free speech. Late night comedian John Oliver takes jabs at the underhanded moves of companies that can’t even be trusted to keep their promise to show up and install cable.3 While these diverse perspectives are all valid, a critical population has remained largely silent: artists.
A decision is expected at the mid-December meeting of the FCC. Some groups circulate petitions and others advocate contacting your representative in congress. For those who wish to have their voice heard in this matter, contact members of the FCC board4as well as members of congress5 with a brief polite letter or email.
An internet dominated by those who have the money to spread their content is likely to become uniform and stale. There is no guarantee that creativity or bright ideas will flourish if they are consigned to a slow speed internet ghetto.