Congress now has less than two months to reinstate net neutrality after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the Obama-era order.
They must act.
The FCC repeal allows internet and mobile service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon to discriminate against publishers, from Netflix, YouTube, and Vimeo, charging them higher carriage fees. It allows for what is called “zero-rating,” where ISPs like AT&T that own content companies like DirecTV can make it free for their customers to watch their own products while charging for data usage from its competitors. It will continue the practice of tiered pricing, where we as consumers can be charged more based on the data we use.
The repeal of net neutrality will kill the TV revolution few people are paying attention to. Most of the media interest in net neutrality has focused on how big companies like Netflix can reach customers without having to charge us more.
But in fact, Netflix created a workaround and partnered with the major ISPs after it accused Comcast of throttling its traffic many years ago. Companies like Google, Netflix, Hulu, Apple, and Amazon all have relatively healthy stock valuations and will be fine even without net neutrality. They have the resources to create workarounds and partnerships with other conglomerates.
The real casualty of net neutrality with be independent creators who are not yet affiliated with big corporations. These creators are critical to cultural innovation via the internet.
In my most recent book, Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television, I track decades of innovation borne of an open, net-neutral web. Generations of storytellers have used the internet to experiment with different ways to produce TV, create different ways for audiences to interact with it, and promote narratives more diverse than what Hollywood invests in. The 100-plus independent producers I interviewed revealed their frustrations with Hollywood’s inability to open up development and let more people make TV — which is why they created their own shows and uploaded them directly to the web.
Because all internet traffic was treated equally, indie producers could amass huge fan bases for their series or find the stakeholders they need to get to the next level. Issa Rae might be the most famous for this: Her series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” broke a decade of Hollywood barely giving black women a chance to create their own series, particularly darker-skinned women with natural hair and an explicitly black feminist perspective on the world.
That series attracted hundreds of thousands of fans, and Rae started releasing and developing other shows by black creators. After securing her HBO deal for Insecure, she’s been able to executive produce series by other black creators.
With Issa Rae, we can see how the open web created a space for big changes in the industry. As Hollywood continues to struggle to represent all of America on screen and behind the camera, the web will be the central place from which they can attract and develop new talent.
Repealing net neutrality could easily put cost pressures on companies like YouTube, Vimeo, Funny Or Die and others that allow indie producers to upload their work to the platform. Will conglomerates like IAC, which owns College Humor and Vimeo, shutter its open-upload websites? Last year Vimeo started an original programming initiative and then quickly shuttered it, sensing the repeal of net neutrality and knowing they could not compete with Netflix, which committed $8 billion to original content in 2018. Feeling cost pressures because of the challenge of getting attention on algorithmically-driven social media sites, Funny Or Die dramatically cut staff last month, eliminating its entire editorial team.
If it costs more to deliver video to customers, will the open-upload websites spend millions and millions of dollars every year to host videos that don’t make them any money? It isn’t hard to imagine YouTube imposing limits on videos, forcing them to reach a certain number of views before automatically taking down most of the 300 hours of video uploaded to the site every minute. Under such a system, we might never get critically acclaimed shows like “Broad City,” “High Maintenance,” “F to 7th,” “Twenties,” and “Ackee & Saltfish,” none of which garnered millions of views on YouTube and Vimeo but whose writer-driven narratives gave their creators access to bigger funders from old media like Comedy Central, BBC, Showtime, TV Land, and HBO.
As those cases attest, few of these new tech companies work with new, young talent, preferring to get their original programming from the major Hollywood agencies, just like the old broadcast and cable networks. The rise of big data has made tech companies act just like their legacy media counterparts and focus on big productions, and for that reason they are similarly struggling to achieve fair representation behind the camera. The loss of net neutrality will pressure them to copy the old Hollywood blockbuster strategy. Already Amazon has canceled alternative feminist comedies, opting to instead spend a reported $250 million on “The Lord of the Rings.”
The most immediate effect of net neutrality will be on consumers. We will pay more for video. Already we have to subscribe to most of the new channels creating original programming, and old media companies like CBS are already charging us monthly rates. Our internet will look more like Portugal, with everything a la carte, behind a paywall. The system is already in place, and we’re already paying.
The hidden cost will be our programming suffering from the same lack of diversity as 20th-century television. Years from now we will wonder why our TV has barely changed. We will forget about the people who broke through the national consciousness with storytelling that spreads organically, broadly, and deeply. The Internet revolution will be a thing of the past and with it will go the promise of a media system that reflects the richness of our culture and democracy.
All is not lost. Public interest groups, internet companies, and 22 states are suing the federal government to reinstate the rules. State and local governments are moving quickly to reinstate net neutrality within their jurisdictions. Contact your representative and let them know an open internet with equal access to information and entertainment is our right.
Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and a Fellow at the Peabody Media Center. His first book, Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television (NYU Press, 2018), argues the web brought innovation to television by opening development to independent producers. He leads OTV | Open Television, a research project and platform for intersectional television whose programs have been recognized by HBO, the Television Academy (Emmy Awards), New York Television Festival, City of Chicago, Streamy Awards, and Independent Filmmaker Project (Gotham Awards), among others.