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- Bad links: Incestuous relationships have given Internet giants a lock on the FCC.
Spend enough time on Facebook and you'll almost certainly run across posts from people declaring their intention to give up social media for good.
Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future is asking everyone to do that, albeit for just one day. They're calling for a July 12 social media boycott to protest the preliminary FCC decision that would put an end to net neutrality.
The two national nonprofits have also been encouraging websites and blogs to go dark that same day, although that's less likely to happen on a large scale. Instead, numerous commercial and activist websites plan to put up prominent messages opposing corporate and government control of the Internet. According to Fight for the Future, these sites will include Amazon, Netflix, the ACLU, Etsy, Vimeo and OK Cupid.
So what exactly is net neutrality, and why should we — especially the musicians among us — care if it's taken away?
The concept of net neutrality harks back to the Internet's roots in government and academia, when every user was given equal access to sites on the Internet along with an equal share of bandwidth — at least in theory. That didn't matter much until the early part of this century, when the largest Internet service providers (usually cable TV and phone companies) demanded the right to give their best customers "platinum service," and to throttle bandwidth hogs.
Computing egalitarians fought back throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, trying to keep all users equal in the eyes of the Internet. But with a new corporate-led administration and only a half-dozen Internet providers controlling the U.S. market, that's increasingly unlikely.
The FCC's May 18 decision to end net neutrality could also seriously jeopardize independent channels for music distribution. With music profitability already hammered by low-margin streaming services, escalating costs of touring, and a collapsing record label infrastructure, an Internet that's controlled by giants like Comcast and Verizon could represent another major coffin nail in dreams of making music a full-time profession. As Internet giants form alliances with such corporate-backed streaming services as Tidal and Rhapsody, more grassroots services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud could get shoved to the sidelines.
Numerous Colorado Springs musicians are concerned that — if the warnings about throttling the Internet are even partially true — the diminished opportunities for self-promotion will make music careers too marginal to ever quit one's day job. Although visibility on bottom-up music sites like Bandcamp is a small fraction of that offered by large streaming services, killing net neutrality could tip the balance even further.
"None of us can live on streaming royalties alone," says local jazz-funk musician Charlie Milo, "and that's what we might face with the new Internet for the 1 percent."
Local hip-hop producer Lord Damage, whose collaborators include hip-hop artist Kevin Mitchell, says that an Internet company directly enforcing data limits and choices of websites is only the tip of the iceberg. He also believes that even sites like Bandcamp are too close to the mainstream media to be unquestioned allies. The real problem, he says, is the ability of large content aggregators like Google and YouTube to remove content without community debate.
"With access to information that can cripple the oligarchs, being removed and omitted online," he says, "it just furthers our slumber and comfort."
Under the Obama model, Internet providers had to treat broadband data as a neutral service coming out of a "spigot," like water or electricity. They couldn't favor certain users.
Sarah Hope, frontwoman of the local band Edith (formerly Edith Makes a Paper Chain), says the net-neutrality reversal seems to fit with an administration that is "trending towards stripping away value from the 99 percent."
And when less than 10 companies control broadband access, they wield much more power in determining who gets what.
In the wake of its preliminary ruling, the FCC continues to be deluged with public comments on both sides. Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has proven particularly effective, with his campaign to preserve net neutrality reportedly inspiring some 2 million comments.
At this point, the May 18 FCC decision's primary impact has been to intensify the rhetoric on both sides of the issue. The ruling is merely a first step, one that would need to be confirmed following a comment period that runs through Aug. 16.
After that, the best-case scenario may be that Comcast and their ilk get reclassified as "information service" companies, in which case they'd be regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, who are potentially more open-minded. Given the fact that current FCC Chair Ajit Pai is a former Verizon counsel, and Bush-era FCC Chair Michael Powell is now lead lobbyist for the cable TV industry, they could hardly be worse.
Those wishing to submit comments to the FCC this summer can find more information at dearfcc.org.