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.
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. 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. 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. 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!