If you are tuned in to conversations about independent media or preserving the open internet, "net neutrality" is probably a term you've heard thrown around in various contexts over the past few years. And this past week, you probably saw even more posts everywhere about how net neutrality is on the verge of being "reclassified under Title II" and how that this is a "huge victory". But what does it all mean and why is this potentially a radically huge "win"?
If you're just tuning in, "net neutrality" is the basic idea that internet access should be the same for everyone. It means that Internet providers (corporations like Verizon and Comcast) should treat Internet traffic the same.
There are some people who think it would be a cool idea for corporations to be able to pay for "fast lanes", or accelerated speed to their sites. But that sort of corporate influence over Internet access would destroy what makes the Internet useful and in ways, even kind of liberating. In a fucked up world without net neutrality, big companies would be able to pay for their sites to load faster than other sites. Verizon and Comcast would be able to block or slow down your access to sites they viewed as a threat to their corporate interests.
Right now, that's not how the Internet works. So that means you can access an ad-free DIY publications like The Media (this website) as fast as you can access mainstream big-money publications. You can get to your favorite punk distro's website as fast as you can get to a major label artist's. In a world without net neutrality, this would change via the hands (and pockets) of cable companies.
Last January, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC's Open Internet rules of 2010, which supported net neutrality. FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler proposed new laws to could have allowed "slow lanes". It was a generally bleak moment and it seemed like he had clearly sided with the cable companies. It seemed unlikely that from this decision there could ever be a strong net neutrality rule.
But people fought back -- seriously. The past year saw an explosion of activism surrounding the importance of net neutrality. And this past Wednesday, Wheeler seemingly reversed his take on the matter. In an op-ed for Wired, the FCC Commissioner wrote: "After more than a decade of debate and a record-setting proceeding that attracted nearly 4 million public comments, the time to settle the Net Neutrality question has arrived. This week, I will circulate to the members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules to preserve the internet as an open platform for innovation and free expression ... I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections."
Title II would reclassify "internet service providers" as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act. For net neutrality, this is "the biggest deal ever," wrote the media reform organization Free Press in a blog post - a blog post you should go read ASAP to understand all of this. There will be a vote on February 26 to decide whether or not the FCC can seal the deal. If this passes, for the first time in over ten years the FCC will have the authority to prevent ISPs from discriminating against content, application or services online. This will be an enforceable net neutrality rule that can stand up in court. Huge!
OK BUT WHY ELSE SHOULD I CARE ...
As all of this news has been rolling in, we thought it seemed like a good time to further contextualize why net neutrality is really important for people who are involved in DIY and punk and generally anti-corporate approach to art and life. For answers, we naturally reached out to two people who immediately come to mind when we think about this sort of stuff: Kevin Erickson, of the Future of Music Coalition, and Candace Clement, of Free Press. (In case you missed it, check out Candace's essay Power Plays from issue 34 of the Media, detailing her path to becoming a media reform activist.)
"DIY communities have always relied on open communications networks to reach each other, ones where you don't need to get anyone's permission to connect to others or communicate what you feel or think," said Candace. "DIY has always been about routing around the gatekeepers, wherever they may be. Its so critical that we have the freedom to create and share ideas and art without asking permission. This is particularly important for communities that aren't represented in the mainstream media. The Internet has provided an alternative to corporate culture. It has redefined how we do almost everything. And none of that is possible without open networks for communication."
That's what makes all of this so important: "If all goes well, they are about to restore these core principles that have driven our telecommunications policy for decades," Candace said. "The very things that made it possible for the Internet to even be created in the first place. Net Neutrality is what allows us to publish our own art and music and writings. It is what keeps cable and phone companies from blocking our communications when we are organizing. It means we are in charge."
Kevin also said these developments are huge for DIY artists and musicians. He wrote: "This news is especially important to folks working in the more DIY, community-focused parts of music & arts culture, because they're among the least likely to have the kind of leverage or cash necessary to not get stuck in the 'slow lane' by giant internet service providers; to whom our basement shows and cassette labels and e-zines look marginal (even as we know how potentially life-altering and impactful they can be). The net neutrality rules proposed by Tom Wheeler this week will prevent that discrimination from happening."
Net neutrality might not be as big of a deal to major-label super-stars, but people involved in underground, self-sufficient communities should care. Kevin continued: "As DIY folks increasingly rely on the internet as the primary way we get the word out about shows & events and new releases, the primary forum for critical dialogue about art and music and how they intersect with social movements, we can't take it for granted."
THE WORK AHEAD
Something really particularly awesome about this (still potential) "win" is that it was the result of tireless people-powered organizing. A true testament to the power and effect of grassroots organizing to overthrow the influence of corporate jerks!
"Policy change can be so hard to achieve," said Candace. "There are lots of small wins (and losses) that can be hard to translate to people who don't spend their days wallowing in the details. Why should people care about telecommunications policy? How does it impact their lives? I think that lots of people ultimately feel like they can do more good in the world providing direct services (i.e., opening a food bank) than they can trying to influence public policy. And I get it. You have to go up against well funded corporate lobbyists to argue about why some obscure piece of the Communications Act is so important to the future of free speech, culture and the economy. Not to mention that the cable and phone companies are some of the top contributors to congressional campaigns. But the laws and policies are so important. And that doesn't mean you can't win and win big. This could be one of those moments."
Years and years of advocacy and organizing set the groundwork for the explosion of activism that happened over the past year. "Ultimately it was people power that pushed this over the edge," said Candace. "The FCC was this kind of obscure regulatory agency that was mostly known for banning words you can't say on radio and TV and then suddenly they were receiving so many comments on their Net Neutrality proposal that their website repeatedly crashed. People held rallies, marches, emergency protests all across the country. Protestors occupied the FCC -- some people camped out there for weeks. There's a small patch of grass right next to the FCC that we have held so many protests and rallies and stunts on for the last six months that it basically feels like a backyard for the movement. (We staged a cat fight between Cable Boss and Net Neutral-i-kitty there just a couple weeks ago.)"
Candace concluded: "If we win on Feb. 26th it will be because millions of people stepped up and got involved in this fight. And we were advocating for a solution that actually got to the root of the problem from the beginning. There have been a lot of things written in the last few days that have been like "OMG NO ONE BELIEVED IT WAS EVEN REMOTELY POSSIBLE!!" (for us to win Title II) a year ago. But I always believed. You have to believe its not just possible to win but that you will win. If you don't believe it, you can't fight. And if you don't fight, you can't win. All that said, here's the ultimate caveat: we haven't won until the FCC votes on Feb 26th. The next three weeks will be the most important ones yet."
Kevin added important points about the roles artists and independent labels have played in this fight: "It's a such a huge win after a decade of work. Artists and independent labels have led the way on this issue--they've been talking about it since long before it was making headlines. And it demonstrates that grassroots activists really can expand the boundaries of what's considered possible; a year ago pundits were saying Title II didn't have a chance, and we'd have to settle for some half-assed version of Net Neutrality that was bound to fail in court yet again. Yet here we are!"
But there's still a lot of work to be done: "This is really encouraging, because there are so many more battles ahead for artists and activists; like, will Comcast and Time Warner Cable be allowed to merge in an unprecedented concentration of power? Can we find ways to ensure the labor of creative workers is valued, rather than exploited? Can we build a music culture that reflects the real diversity of voices and perspectives, including those who've historically been marginalized on and offline? Real Net Neutrality is a necessarily baseline for a healthy creative ecosystem, but on it's own, it's not enough. So this victory provides some momentum and inspiration as we look forward."