Why Net Neutrality Matters to Independent Filmmakers and Viewers


Photo: Jeremy Brooks, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The FCC has just announced that it will propose new rules allowing ISPs to charge increased rates for higher bandwidth users, effectively negating Net Neutrality. What does this mean and what can we do?  Here, a few of the basic ways Net Neutrality (and a lack thereof) affects content creators like independent filmmakers, content providers like Fandor and viewers like you, and what you can do to make your voice heard. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith banded together to form United Artists nearly a hundred years ago,  with hopes of controlling their own work and liberating it from the studios’ grip. Filmmakers today face similar challenges in gaining control of their work from faceless commercial entities. While there are, of course, more opportunities for creating work than ever before, filmmakers are also increasingly facing roadblocks to getting that work seen by the public. This is where Net Neutrality comes into play. What Caused the Need for Net Neutrality? The past generation has seen an explosion in the volume of content consumed over the Internet, accompanied by a lack of infrastructure to support the flow of that information.

Bandwidth increase over the past twenty years

Nielsen’s Law of Internet bandwidth states that a high-end user’s connection speed grows by 50% per year. The y-axis has a logarithmic scale: thus, this nearly straight line represents annual exponential growth by a constant percentage.

This chart illustrates how bandwidth needs have accelerated over the past twenty years. If there isn’t enough bandwidth for all of the content that a set of subscribers to an ISP (such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc.) require, then the ISP either has to build additional bandwidth or ration the existing bandwidth. A lack of bandwidth to support video streaming manifests for the viewer as “buffering” messages and stuttering playback. These pauses deliver a disappointing experience for the viewer and it can (and will) cause them to seek out a better option. Net Neutrality is important because it affects how and when this rationing occurs. NetNeutrality-logo What is Net Neutrality? Net Neutrality, according to Wikipedia, is “the principle that Internet Service Providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.” Net Neutrality is a principle that in most cases is not legally binding. This means that anyone who creates content and wants to make sure that people have a great experience watching it needs to understand what is at stake: without clear and non-discriminating regulation, it is likely that when the ISPs ration content, it will be based on revenue to the ISPs. That is, unfortunately, how the free market works. The revenue needs to come from either the viewers of the content, the owners of the content or investors looking to recoup. The End of Net Neutrality = The End of Freedom for Content  If viewers are already paying for content, they will be hard-pressed to pay a second time to optimize the viewing of that content.  At the same time, any content provider (including Fandor) wants to make sure that their customers have the best experience possible and don’t leave the service due to poor quality viewing. The natural progression of rationing is not pretty: those services that have greatest ability to pay will have their content favored by the ISPs. boldquote You may be wondering, why do we need to ration?  Why can’t there be enough capacity? The simple answer is that the cost per household to build out that additional capacity is greater than what the businesses that provide the service (the ISPs) can recoup in a time frame that is short enough for the public markets. These are, after all, publicly-traded companies. Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation, and author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, recently penned a wonderful argument for why it should be the U.S. government and not private players doing the build-out of that capacity. NetNeutrality-photo What Can I Do to Make My Voice Heard?  If only filmmakers could simply make great films and have them seen by their eager fans. If only viewers could choose which films they wanted to watch and not have that choice made for them by the companies they pay to deliver content. There’s much to think about when it comes to the control of art and its flow to the public. Unfortunately, as was true a hundred years ago, power still belongs to those that have the money or resources to organize. The Internet has created an amazing opportunity to easily connect people with shared interests. In this case, it’s not just the artists who need to unite, it’s the viewers. The more informed we all are about what the challenges are, the more organized we can be to confront them. Click here for more information on Net Neutrality and why it is so important to maintain. Click here to sign a petition to the White House to protect and maintain true Net Neutrality.  Click here to leave a comment for the FCC (Under “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”) and here to learn more about submitting comments.  Contact your representatives in Congress and the Senate And stay tuned for more on how to organize and advocate for this issue!

10 thoughts on “Why Net Neutrality Matters to Independent Filmmakers and Viewers

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  2. This article is less clear than it could be. You give up the battle right off the bat by allowing ISPs to pretend bandwidth is a scarce resource. The problem of growing bandwidth is as predictable as needing computers that are twice as fast every 2 years. We *could* stop making faster computers, but it would stall technical and economic development. Everyone should know bandwidth needs to keep doubling forever – that’s a given. It’s like a law of nature. If it stops doubling, we have less economic development, and the internet is less productive than it could be.

    Plus technically, if we are using fibre, there is a huge amount of redundancy for expansion in the form of unlit fibres. All ISPs have to do is plug them in. Their scarcity story is LOL ridiculous. The simple fact is they want a cut of Google’s profits. If ISPs can’t provide the infrastructure necessary to allow the digital economy to work, they can get the fuck out of the way. It seems everyone but the ISPs can agree ideally the network infrastructure should be publicly owned with open, true competition for service providers on the network: like taxis or delivery vans compete on a public road.

    “I know, let’s privatise the road and charge big taxi companies huge amounts to for a special taxi lane that the small taxi companies and regular cars can’t use. We’ll convert the passing lane. Not only will we get rich, we won’t have to invest in new lanes or innovate with ‘smart’ roads. We just sit back and rake in the cash. Genius!”

    For filmmakers, network neutrality ensures the Hollywood studios can’t pay ISPs to make sure users see their movies instead of independent films from businesses that aren’t as rich. It’s as simple as that. It’s a matter of simple principles. Once it reaches the point of considering the impact on Fandor users paying twice or paying more, you’ve lost again.

    One way we know neutrality has value is because the search engines tried something similar: they acted like the yellow pages, forcing people to pay to get listed, and forcing users through search ‘portals.’ This was called The Death of the Internet. Google ended that rather quickly by providing search based on relevance, ie. by changing the game from “whoever has the most money wins” into “whoever everyone thinks is most interesting wins.” Of course, unlike the ISPs, the search engines weren’t granted monopolies by the government. Someone could conceivably out-compete them.

    If you let the “network scarcity” straw man stand – you lose, filmmakers lose, and audiences lose.

    (I bet my take is just as opaque as yours – it just seems clear to me 🙂

    • Brad — publicly-owned ISPs might not be the right solution. Lots of people like you and me *want* ISPs that offer net neutrality. Just as we buy fair-trade products, we could buy net-neutral bandwidth, *if* the state stepped out of the way and stopped granting monopolies to the ISPs (as you point out). The problem starts with the monopoly grant — let’s pull the weed out by the root.

      • I do agree. I was thinking of an old Canadian plan, proposed 15 years ago, for ‘Fibre to the Home by 2005,’ by Bill St. Arnaud at Canada’s research network organisation CANARIE. The network was treated as key infrastructure like roads and sewage. There was no such thing as ISPs as we know them. Companies could openly compete to provide services like phone, TV, etc but had nothing to do with owning the network. It’s basically municipal fibre – customer-empowered fibre – but it was a national network. The plan promised 100Mbps, ramping up to 1Gbps at DSL prices. In retrospect it would have been a lot cheaper and the economic payoff would be much bigger. But it seemed people were greedy. They didn’t want to pay for “someone else to play games,” and lacked the imagination to see the high speed network would facilitate things like sharing MRI scanners over long distances, etc. The more bandwidth you have, the more applications and efficiencies you can develop. People couldn’t imagine anything beyond consumer consumption. Plus the Telcos and cable companies had a foot jamming the development door shut.

        I would certainly support any ISP selling net neutrality and/or encryption. If neutrality falls in the UK, I’d seriously consider logging off – again. If more people were like me, the future of Fandor wouldn’t be at all assured – like Cisco in China 😉 I’m hanging on by a thread as it is. In the UK we currently maintain network neutrality but have the NSA/GCHQ problem, plus we are also dealing with The Great Firewall of Cameron – supplied by the Chinese, ironically enough – which will take some engineering to work around. It kicks in if I upgrade to fibre – only available from a Big 4 ISP. Everyone has a forced choice, A) “Give me the porn” and get an unfiltered internet, and risk having your children taken away at some point in the future because you are irresponsible, or B) “Won’t somebody think of the children!” and have a badly-filtered internet where anything not white, male, heterosexual, and ‘normal’ is zapped into the ether by underpaid employees of private companies in China in who know nothing about British culture. Ironically a child abuse charity was an early casualty. As a matter of principle, it’s not an easy decision. The *real* choice is B) filtered, with workaround X) to get the unfiltered internet back again. Or C) stay in the slow lane with slow film uploads. (Hey look! I brought it back to filmmaking! 😉 And still, no business offering respite from having our private lives recorded by NSA/GCHQ. The US is much freer in this regard – the UK is Surveillance Central. Now it’s in our homes. Poor internet. Anyway, thanks for the chat. Sorry to ramble at length.

      • Thanks, Dan. I read the PDF and then went back and read Susan Crawford’s article. I think I understand. I didn’t really think we needed 100Mb yet and felt the network providers were simply demanding cash. You can get perfect looking 4k at 24Mbps; 1080p at 6Mbps; SD at 1.5Mbps. Our own digital TV, Netflix, iTunes movies are all SD or less. But whether network providers are being extortionate or not, that’s the new reality, I guess. Cheers, Brad.

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