Here’s the third part of our series on Net Neutrality and Urban Music, written by hip-hop journalist Eric K. Arnold. The article (which is archived in its entirety here), offers an in-depth look at what the open internet means to the urban music community.
Enter the Message Police
Internet filtering techniques are standard practice in countries like Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, whose governments “seek to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet,” according to Reporters Without Borders. Yet while the U.S. government has a responsibility to uphold the Constitutional rights of its citizens, telecommunications companies appear to have no such scruples.
This topic is particularly relevant, because censorship has always been an underlying issue in hip-hop and urban music. In addition to direct censorship (i.e. the PMRC’s campaign against explicit rap lyrics in the early ’90s), indirect censorship also exists, mainly in the form of exclusion.
For instance, mainstream rap is often taken to task these days for sexist or violent content, which reflects on hip-hop as a whole. Yet rap’s critics often fail to point out that what you’re not hearing on commercial radio or seeing on video outlets is hip-hop that promotes positive or conscious sentiments — the overwhelming majority of which is released on independent labels. The same holds true for socially-aware or political hip-hop. Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard dead prez, Immortal Technique, Paris, or the Coup on your local “hot urban” radio station?
Without Net Neutrality, the Internet could turn from a fun place where anyone can be a star to a place where only corporate-approved artists get to dance. It also could amount to an end-around run on the First Amendment, if telecommunications giants like Verizon and Comcast have their way.
Both companies have already shown hints of employing below-the-belt tactics with regard to Net Neutrality. Internet free speech advocates have likened Comcast’s “traffic management” tactics to those employed by the Chinese government. According to CNET.com’s Chris Soghoian, “the techniques used by Comcast are essentially the same as those used by the Great Firewall of China.” As Indiana University of Informatics Associate Professor Jean Camp noted, “When China does it, we call it ‘censorship.’”
The potential harm of these practices is considerable. “We have seen network operators block political speech,” Christian Coalition of America spokeswoman Michele Combs said during an April 2008 FCC hearing at Stanford University, a charge she repeated a few days later during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “The Future of the Internet.” Combs (no relation to Sean “P. Diddy” Combs) was referring to the King James version of the Bible, but it just as easily could have been politically-explicit rap songs like Immortal Technique’s “The Fourth Branch” or the Coup’s “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem.”
On the bright side, an outpouring of public interest has made a difference on a Federal level, raising hopes that Net Neutrality will be upheld. On August 1, the FCC approved an enforcement order requiring Comcast to stop interfering with P2P files and to disclose its methodology for regulating Internet traffic. This provides some relief for, say, indie producers who send music tracks to artists via the Web, but is only one small victory in a much larger battle.
Making the Link to Urban Music
Net Neutrality is fast approaching critical mass, yet with few exceptions, the issue has flown under the radar of the urban community. As Lyrical Swords author Adisa Banjoko points out, “A little kid who has a two-way isn’t thinking about how that content gets to him.”
However, because today’s urban music audience is so reliant on the Internet, BET’s Paul Porter says, “I think this is the one time where hip-hop could have a large voice.”
Yet that voice has so far been largely silent, quite possibly because urban indie artists and labels have been more focused on the issue of illicit downloading than ISPs filtering online content. “No disrespect, but the concerns of artists… are minimal compared to the much larger and more stifling effect on the general exchange of information,” remarked Davey-D, who adds that upholding Net Neutrality is in artists’ own interest, even if they don’t realize it yet.
To Banjoko, “The MP3 thing is a really big red herring. While everybody’s arguing about that, they’re gonna lock down the rest of the game” — “they” being telecommunications companies and corporate media. Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), who has introduced pro-net a neutrality bill, used similar language at a May 6, 2008 hearing on the issue. “This whole idea that this legislation helps piracy is 100 percent wrong,” Markey said. “It’s a red herring. We should put an aquarium out here because there are so many red herrings floating around to mislead about what the intent of Net Neutrality is.”Asya Shein of Fusicology.com says Net Neutrality has been overlooked by the urban community “because there hasn’t been proper education to the artists and their reps that can help them better understand the consequences of this very possible looming situation.” It’s important, she adds, to “keep the net free and open for all — censorship online conflicts directly with the Constitution. It would affect all music communities if we had to worry about a controlled Internet.”
What You Can Do, Now
- Take a few minutes to do an Internet search on “Net Neutrality” and read up on the issue.
- Join Future of Music Coalition’s Rock the Net campaign to demonstrate your support of the open Internet.
- Net neutrality is currently being examined at the state and Federal legislative levels; learn more at SaveTheInternet.com
- Tell Comcast and Verizon that censorship is un-American.
- Attend an FCC hearing in your area.
- Forward this article to all your MySpace and Facebook friends.
- Record a song defending Net Neutrality, make a video of it and post it on YouTube.
- Write your favorite urban publication and ask them why they haven’t covered this topic in-depth.
- Support underground and/or indie artists by legally downloading their music.
About the Author:
Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-1990s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he’s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog, Africana.com, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. He currently lives in Oakland, California.