The anti-Net Neutrality brigade is at it again. Some may have seen the recent opinion piece at NPR.com by Scott Cleland, which offers a litany of reasons why net neutrality — which makes the internet go vroom! — should be done away with to fill the coffers of a few powerful Internet Service Providers (ISPs). We've heard Cleland's views on the issue many times, but we couldn't disagree more with his position.
In the article, Cleland claims that net neutrality principles are damaging to free speech and business. Actually, it's kind of the opposite.
Net neutrality is the principle that protects the open internet. The web was built on open structures that gives everyone equal footing on the most important communications platform since the printing press. Net neutrality ensures that you can use the lawful applications and devices of your choice, and also means that ISPs can't discriminate whether or not your information is delivered based on how deep your pockets are.
Here's an analogy. Your favorite pizza place is a local joint called Joe's Pizza. It's Friday night and your band just finished rehearsal. Nothing would go better with that six pack than a fresh pie from Joe's. You call up the pizza parlor, order memorized, only to be interrupted by an operator who says, "please hold while we prioritize calls to Domino's."
That's what a non-neutral net could look like. Imagine going to your favorite band's website, but it takes forever to load because they couldn't afford to (or didn't want to) cut a deal with their ISP. OR worse, maybe you're simply redirected to your ISP's music store. Sounds like the opposite of marketplace choice, huh?
The phone analogy is apt, because the internet grew out of the phone lines. But in 2005, there was an important Supreme Court decision (read more about it here) that allowed the then-leadership FCC to reclassify internet delivery as an "information service," not a "telecommunications service." That meant that the regulations that applied to the phone lines all these years — the so-called "common carrier" rules — did not necessarily apply to the web. The big telecom and cable companies (who control the lion's share of the internet marketplace) thought this was a great opportunity to start charging content providers more money for the faster delivery of their sites and services.
This was bad news for musicians and labels — particularly those of the independent variety. See, the open internet lets even the smallest bedroom artist or fledgling entrepreneur to compete on an equal technological playing field alongside the biggest companies. Without net neutrality, those who couldn't afford to — or didn't want to — pay a toll to their Internet Service Provider (ISP) could be stuck in the slow lane of the information superhighway.
But back to Cleland's article. Cleland claims that net neutrality principles (remember, this is the way the internet was designed) "offend freedom of speech." Well, some of you may remember an incident back in 2007 when Pearl Jam was playing a concert at Lollapalooza and ATT -- who had the exclusive right to live webcast the event — censored PJ front man Eddie Vedder for improvising some frankly innocuous lyrics about then-president George W. Bush. This incident essentially shows what can happen when a single entity controls the flow of information on the web. Do we really want the ISP's to be the arbiters of what constitutes "appropriate" speech?
There's also the issue of competition in the internet marketplace. In far too many places in this country, customers are lucky to have a single provider for broadband — if they have one at all. Even in the biggest cities (like here in DC) there is an appalling lack of choice as to who your provider is. The telecom companies would like to pretend that if one ISP behaves in a way that infringes on a user's basic network rights, then they can just switch to another company. But what happens if there is no other company?
It's important to remember that all current attempts to codify net neutrality principles — either legislatively or at the FCC — make a clear distinction between lawful and unlawful content. We at FMC are 100 percent down with creator's rights to control their own copyright and exploit their works in the marketplace for financial reward. Yet we also recognize that open network structures are key to innovation and the emergence of a legitimate digital music marketplace that rewards both creators and fans.
In 2007, we started our Rock the Net campaign to raise awareness about the importance of net neutrality to the music community. Founding artists included R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Kronos Quartet, OK Go, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists and many, many more. In the course of the campaign, we enlisted the support of thousands of bands and indie labels. We brought OK Go to Capitol Hill to talk about the issue before the House Judiciary Committee. With our friends at Thirsty Ear Recordings, we released a compilation CD, Rock the Net: Musicians for Net Neutrality, which featured songs from Wilco, Bright Eyes, Aimee Mann, They Might Be Giants, Guster and more. And we continue to highlight the need to preserve open internet structures at every opportunity.
Just last week, FMC's Kristin Thomson and Casey Rae-Hunter talked about net neutrality to an audience of musicians, artist advocates and presenters at the New York State Arts Summit. On September 17, FMC Policy Director Michael Bracy and composer Alex Shapiro spoke at the FCC's Broadband Workshop on the role of content in online. Those comments focused largely on the need for competition in the broadband marketplace as the FCC works towards its National Broadband Plan. But both Bracy and Shapiro made sure to let the Commission know that net neutrality must be an underlying component of any strategy for expanding service to more Americans.
It's not entirely surprising that the anti-neutrality gophers are coming out of their burrows. On September 21, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced at the Brookings Institute the Commission's plan to add two more net neutrality principles to its existing four. Next up is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the two new principles, during which the public will be invited to comment. We're positively delighted that Chairman Genachowski will be delivering a keynote at the Future of Music Policy Summit (Oct. 4-6, Georgetown University, Washington, DC).
We're also thrilled that Senator Al Franken will also be delivering a keynote (on net neutrality, no less!) at Policy Summit '09, after which he'll sit down for a special conversation with Mike Mills of R.E.M.
We should also mention that there's increasing support for net neutrality from other members of Congress, including Reps. Ed Markey and Anna Eshoo (who introduced House legislation in July) and Senators Olympia Snowe and Byron Dorgan, who plan to introduce a companion bill.
Suffice it to say, FMC has been tracking this issue for a long time. We're proud to have worked with other net neutrality supporters — like SaveTheInternet — over the past few years. And we're psyched that so many artists are on the same page in terms of keeping the internet open and accessible to all. Hopefully, even more folks will start to hear the music.