A couple of days ago, news started to trickle out about a deal between Verizon and Google that would represent the death of net neutrality.
The deal, which would grant delivery priority to content providers willing to pay a fee, has wide-ranging (and potentially catastrophic) ramifications, but amazingly, one of the most succinct, eloquent explanations came from Google back in 2006:
“Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay.”
Josh Silver tacked that quote onto the end of an editorial The Huffington Post ran this morning called “The End of the Internet As We Know It,” and even though we live in an age of outrageous, hyperbolic, occasionally misleading headline writing, we think that about covers it.
The Internet may have destabilized the music business, but it has also democratized it in ways that are tremendously exciting; its future is online. People may continue to buy vinyl or tapes (hell, maybe even CDs), and they will still go out to see their favorite bands in person, but the central engines of the music business – artist discovery, artist promotion, marketing and communication, even collaboration – all reside in the digital space. The revenue streams that are increasingly central to artists’ survival – streaming, royalties, licensing, and downloads – can only live online. If this deal goes through (and with the FCC in its de-fanged state, it seems certain to), access to these streams will be changed, and potentially even jeopardized.
In the past couple years, consumers have grown accustomed to near-instantaneous access to media. If a site takes too long to load, users will simply leave, unlikely to return. Today, “too long” means something like “more than five seconds,” and once Verizon start charging premium fees for bandwidth priority, the definition will change again. It will trigger an arms race in which platforms and media distributors will be forced to pay more and more simply to stay relevant.
These costs will be transferred to artists. It may happen directly, in the form of access fees or dues; companies like Google or Pandora may start taking heftier cuts of sales or royalties. It may happen indirectly, in the form of content policing; graphic, sexual, or politically controversial material may not be allowed onto certain platforms.
Companies like Verizon and Comcast have argued that broadband is a premium service that they spent billions of dollars developing, installing, and now maintaining, and that they can do with it what they please. Dial-up access to the Internet is neutral, and always will be. Thanks to FCC regulations, telecommunications companies must make it available to all U.S. citizens, and are barred from denying or meddling with it.
But for all intents and purposes, creative industries can only function on broadband. You can’t stream an album or a web series on a 56k modem. You can’t access YouTube, Pandora, Last.fm, Vimeo, Indaba, Myspace Music, MOG, Spotify, MTV, Vevo, or any Internet radio station. Charging premium fees for the right to broadcast or present media will create an oligarchy that will operate in much the same way that the handful of companies that currently control the film and music industries do. This deal will further marginalize the independent artists who are already getting squeezed by declining record sales.
Contact your congressperson and tell them you don’t want this to happen.