On June 28, 2006, by an 11-11 vote, the Senate Commerce Committee failed to approve an amendment that would have ensured that strong network neutrality provisions were part of the Telecommunications Reform Act that may now go to the Senate floor. This is a stinging defeat for media and technology policy activists who understand what is at stake: telephone and cable industries want to change the fundamental organizing principles of the Internet.
The vote makes the Future of Music Coalition think of the old adage, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. Future of Music Coalition (FMC) was created in 2000 because traditional structures for producing, promoting, and selling music basically did not serve musicians and fans. Unfair record contracts, rampant consolidation of record labels and radio stations, and the questionable business practice of payola led to a dysfunctional structure where signed artists were subject to lopsided deals and unsigned artists were locked out of the major distribution and promotion channels. Because of this artificial scarcity and control, the vast majority of working musicians labored in poverty, while fans were presented with narrowly tailored radio playlists and a handful of videos on high rotation. These videos and playlists were crafted by major record labels in collusion with consolidated commercial radio and cable music television channels.
By the time FMC started, the traditional vehicle providing access to the music market, local radio, had imploded. 1n 1996, Congress tried to meet the needs of radio broadcasters in much the same way that they are trying to accommodate the telecommunications industry today. The result was a historic transformation of the industry where massive consolidation gutted the traditional regulatory principles of localism, competition and diversity. The effort to appease broadcasters, who complained of harmful competitive forces and the urgent need to take advantage of “economies of scale,” backfired. While a handful of radio station conglomerates profited, the era of radio deregulation has resulted in fewer owners, fewer listeners, cookie-cutter playlists, and a widespread payola scandal.
Commercial radio has been allowed to self-destruct, thanks to a lack of reasonable regulation and an obsession with seeing a return on investment. This is exactly the same future we see if Congress allows cable and telephone companies to manage a tiered Internet.
At the heart of the recent debate is the basic question of “network neutrality.” While this may be a new and unfamiliar phrase to many, it codifies a core concept that has existed since the creation of the Internet. For years, FMC has argued that technological innovation will trump spectrum scarcity, as long as government doesn’t move in to shelter old business models with industry specific regulations. Without clear network neutrality provisions, the Internet as we know it runs the risk of being transformed into a proprietary high speed data network controlled by a few phone companies, cable companies and wireless providers. Essentially, what happened to radio could happen to the Internet.
The telecommunications industry and their shameless fake consumer groups are telling Congress and consumers that this is a debate between AT&T/Verizon/Comcast and Google/Microsoft/Yahoo. This mischaracterization is as insulting as it is misleading. This is a debate about the future of our democracy and our culture.
For the music community, the last five years have seen a remarkable transformation to a legitimate digital music economy. Artists are using new technologies to create, market and distribute their works it in ways never before possible. Consumers have had the unprecedented ability to discover and enjoy music, using a wide range of devices and platforms. Innovators responded to the new marketplace by developing new services and business models, including subscription services, digital download stores, webcast stations, music blogs and social networking communities. The Internet has given many people the opportunity to not only engage in the music marketplace, but to completely reconfigure it into something dynamic and diverse.
The success of the digital music transformation is rooted in the idea that artists should be able to make their work available to potential fans via platforms of their choosing, while consumers should have the right to access any legal content via platforms of their choice. When telephone companies and cable companies request permission to put a price tag on access to their network, how is this different from huge radio chains putting a price tag on the ability to be considered for commercial airplay?
The Internet works because of innovation and creativity, not because of huge corporations that seek to maximize their return on investment. In the mid 1990s, consumers rejected the early walled-garden business model of America Online in favor of the chaos of the Internet. Now, the companies that control Internet access for businesses and homes claim that net neutrality provisions are unnecessary and counterproductive. The music community has been through this before. We’ve seen what happens when a vital conduit becomes locked down by huge corporations fixated on gaining a return on their investment. As the debate around network neutrality and the underlying legal and regulatory structure of the Internet begins in earnest, the music community won’t stand for Congress or the FCC to implement a legal and regulatory framework that could allow dominant broadband providers to leverage the same destructive gatekeeper function that radio conglomerates used in the name of maximizing return on investment.
Future of Music Coalition is part of a diverse coalition of organizations pressing Congress to halt the telecommunication industry’s efforts to redefine the fundamental structures of the Internet. Consumers Union, Common Cause, Free Press, Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, AARP and dozens of others are expressing their support for strong network neutrality laws.
If and when this measure moves to the Senate floor, advocates for speech, culture and consumer rights will fight to preserve an open Internet for artists, activists, entrepreneurs, researchers, consumers and any citizen who values the open structures of the Internet. FMC wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of this issue when the sleeping giant of the public wakes up to realize what big media and some government representatives are trying to do to their Internet. That battle will be fierce and personal.