Net neutrality in real life

Friday, April 6, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, Mark tagged me to get involved in the net neutrality debate online. I added a link to neutrality.ca to my sidebar while I contemplated what I had to say about this, then suddenly found myself discussing it frequently enough to realize that I really do care about it.

For those of you who are not familiar with net neutrality, you can check out neutrality.ca’s site or the recent piece on CityTV by Amber MacArthur:

The short explanation is that it allows us, as consumers, to choose what internet content that we want to access, without having our internet providers either censor or restrict the bandwidth of sites that they deem harmful to themselves in some way. There are a growing number of examples of internet providers — companies like Bell, Telus and Rogers, who we pay to provide us with broadband access to the internet — either cutting off access to sites or throttling back the bandwidth to make them essentially unusable; these examples range from completely blocking a pro-union site that represented workers of one of these companies when they were out on strike, to restricting bandwidth of certain types of traffic, like free IP telephony applications and peer-to-peer video services, that compete with the providers’ own for-pay services. Considering that we’re paying them for internet access of a certain bandwidth, this is clearly a violation of the spirit of the agreement that we have with them, if not the letter of the contract itself.

As a consumer, it’s clear to see why you should be in favour of net neutrality: otherwise, the internet providers will continue to decide what we watch and how we use the internet, much like their predecessors have done with television; we’ll end up paying more for less variety. But it’s also important for content producers, because more and more these days, we’re all content producers. We upload photos to Flickr. We upload videos to YouTube. We write blogs. We create content online. In many cases, this content is not mission critical or even revenue generating, but it’s important to us for some reason, and we don’t want it to be unfairly restricted in any way. As the ISPs get into the business of selling content, more of what we do as independent content creators will compete with what they do, making them more likely to either slow down access to our content or shake us down for payment to make it accessible at the speed that it should be offered.

The face of content creation is changing. It’s not just the mainstream media any more: it’s anyone who has something to say and a bit of technology. And this week, I saw three examples of non-mainstream media that are very different, but great reasons for why we need to support net neutrality, since without it, these may not exist. Even if you don’t share these tastes in TV, politics and music, picture your favourites in here.

The first is PromQueen.tv, which I read about on TechCrunch. It’s an 80-episode high-school serial drama, with each episode only 1-1/2 minutes long, aimed clearly at the MySpace generation. True, this is a kissing cousin to mainstream media, since it’s the product of a company started by ex-Disney chief Michael Eisner, but the entire thing was done with a budget of $100k, and has some fairly unobtrusive ads at the beginning and end of each episode to help pay the bills. If Eisner can do this for $100k, then others can too, and people will watch if the story quality and production values are sufficiently high. Unless, of course, your ISP is also a cable company, and decides that they don’t want you watching PromQueen.tv since it might impact how much money that you spend on their cable services.

Second are Olivia Chow‘s videos on YouTube. I’m in her riding and a supporter; in fact, she was knocking on doors in my building earlier this week and I had a chance to chat with her, although completely forgot to talk about net neutrality 🙁  The next day, I received an email newsletter from her office with a link to her latest video about the lack of regulation in the pet food industry. Clearly an amateur production, featuring (and likely filmed by) friends and relatives, it gave Chow an opportunity to state her opinions in a casual format without spending a lot of money to do it, and appear sort of cool at the same time. Given the obscene amounts of money that other political parties spend on attack ads on mainstream media, I’m happy to see that the NDP is using the low-cost grassroots approach for some of their policy statements, and not via the fake MySpace page approach that US politicians seem to favour. This video only has a couple of hundred views so far, but others, like her tour of the “green house” where she and Jack Layton live have generated over 10,000 views. That, of course, could change if your ISP is a large phone company that is a big supporter of the Conservative party and decides to choke off access to content created by other political parties.

Third is a hilarious parody video done by Alanis Morissette, using some fairly sparse sets but otherwise full (read: pricey) production support. First, watch this video of the rap song “My Humps” by the Black-Eyed Peas (even if you don’t like them, suffer through it, it’s less than 4 minutes long):

Then, watch this video of Morissette’s cover of the same song, released on April Fool’s Day (ditto on even if you don’t like her):

When you pick yourself up off the floor, probably having peed yourself laughing, notice that her video has over 3 million views as of today: it’s being discussed on blogs everywhere, mainstream entertainment sites such as CTV’s, who write “The ridiculous clip is attracting cheers from fans across the blogosphere, where pop-culture junkies are delighting in the ‘Ironic’ singer’s no-holds-barred critique of the titillating track and singer Fergie’s suggestive dance moves”, and music sites such as the Lefsetz Letter, which refers to it as “a juggernaut” in terms of the viral nature of its spread in the past six days, and points out that “we no longer live in a top-down society. The mainstream comes to the party last, after the public has delineated what’s important.” The point that Lefsetz is making is that even if content is semi-mainstream (if anyone can refer to Morissette in that way), the decision about what gets watched has moved from the hands of mainstream media who fed us a restricted number of channels of both video and audio, into the hands of the consumers via their consumption on YouTube and other internet sites. Except if your ISP wants to promote their own online music video offering and doesn’t want you watching Alanis unless you do it on their channel.

Net neutrality matters to all of us, whether we’re passive consumers or active creators of internet content. As neutrality.ca puts it, it’s your internet.

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