Net Neutrality: As Important as Air

It sounds complex, but you need to understand how net neutrality can affect you, your work and access to consumers

I had coffee with a friend this morning and the issue of net neutrality came up.

We discussed how it’s a lot like the term "broadband" 10 years ago ,when even the cable companies themselves – folks deeply invested in broadband’s development and promotion – couldn’t quite explain to their own personnel exactly what it was and why it was important. (I know, I worked for one and asked the question often.)

Just as broadband changed everything, net neutrality – or the lack of it – is about to change everything again. This time, though, the internet service providers (cable, satellite, telcos) know exactly what the term means and precisely how critical an issue it is. They’re not explaining it this time for a very simple and fundamental reason: They don’t want anyone else to know.

The ISPs eventually figured out how to communicate the basics and benefits of broadband because it was an important new product (not to mention the basis for a suite of related products) and selling their customers on broadband became a critical business strategy and powerful revenue engine. The more their customers knew about broadband and its growing importance, the better for their bottom lines.

This time, the opposite is true. This time, the ISPs have been (very quietly) spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to kill or at least seriously dilute any hint of net neutrality.

So just what *is* net neutrality?

Very simply, it’s the idea that all internet traffic should remain free of traffic cops. That’s how it works today. (Except for a few isolated areas where certain ISPs are unfortunately already making headway imposing speedbumps along the internet superhighway.)

Why are the ISPs so dead set against net neutrality? Let’s see. Cablevision (Optimum Online) owns AMC, IFC, WE, Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden; Comcast owns Outdoor Life, the Golf Channel, most of E! Entertainment and is about to own all of NBC Universal; Time Warner owns, well, there’s not enough space here to list the content generators that Time Warner controls. Anyway, you get the idea.

As long as the ISPs own both the content and the means of distributing that content online, what’s to prevent them from, say, slowing down (or eliminating) your stream to a competitor’s programming?

Or what if they have a very profitable relationship with one of their advertisers, say, Sony. What’s to prevent them from slowing or eliminating access to RCA’s website?

Or perhaps you’re a filmmaker streaming your film to thousands or hundreds of thousands of viewers around the world when suddenly your traffic slows to a crawl and you read on IndieWire that your ISP just launched its own online independent film channel? Coincidence? I don’t think so.

So all the cable companies and satellite services and telcos are up on Capitol Hill twisting arms and slapping backs and contributing to campaigns and making lots of meaningless promises to Congress. “Senator, we’d never treat one customer differently from any other and we’d certainly never consider treating one piece of digital content any differently from any other. Pinky swear. You’ve got more important things to worry about. Terrorism, the economy, socialized medicine. We don’t need more regulations. That would impede free enterprise. That wouldn’t be fair to big business. People would lose their jobs. We need smaller government, not bigger government. By the way, we’re having a tea party tonight and you’re invited!”

Especially for independent filmmakers, the issue of net neutrality is one that you’d better wrap your minds around in a hurry and take as seriously as you do the air that you breathe, because the ISPs have their hands around your throat and they’re about to squeeze. Hard.

I’ll be writing a lot about net neutrality in the coming weeks, including information, resources and recommended tactics. Please learn all you can and do everything possible to spread the word.

Help light this fire!!