What happens to the Internet will shape what happens to music, along with every other aspect of culture and free speech. A reported plan that would change the way cable and telephone companies can charge for online content goes to a crucial vote at the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, May 15.
The proposal, which — according to The Wall Street Journal — would allow the likes of Comcast and Time Warner Cable to demand extra fees from websites for faster download speeds, has already faced so much public backlash that the Journal now reports FCC head Tom Wheeler has tweaked the plan in hopes of getting it approved.
As the regulators' vote approaches, dozens of artists have joined forces to defend network neutrality, or net neutrality, the idea that the companies controlling the Internet's plumbing shouldn't be able to dictate how the rest of us use our faucets.
"The open Internet's impact on the creative community cannot be overstated," reads a letter signed by Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, Neko Case, the director Oliver Stone, and more. "The Internet has enabled artists to connect directly with each other and with audiences. It has eliminated the barriers of geography and taken collaborations to new levels. And it has allowed people — not corporations — to seek out the film, music and art that moves them."
Future of Music Coalition and Free Press, two nonprofit advocacy groups, organized the letter, which argues that Wheeler's plan would allow telecom giants "to pick winners and losers online and discriminate against online content and applications."
Other musicians signing it include Jello Biafra, Kimya Dawson, Fugazi, Kronos Quartet, David Lowery, Jeff Mangum, Mirah, Eric McKeown, Tom Morello, Thao Nguyen, OK Go, Ozomotali, Joe Perry, Jill Sobule, tUnE-yArDs, and YACHT, plus members of Antibalas, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the MC5, the Minus 5, and more. Other signees range from the pop-punk label Fat Wreck Chords and the hip-hop journalist Davey D to comedians Judah Friedlander and Hari Kondabolu.
Independent record labels also have come out against Wheeler's reported proposal. The American Association of Independent Music, which represents many well-known indie labels, said in a May 5 FCC filing that creating fast and slow lanes for Internet use would make it harder for the labels to connect with fans. The Internet has changed the playing field for indies by "removing the gatekeepers," A2IM writes, adding, "Open Internet structures are our best means through which to do business, reach listeners and innovate in the digital realm."
With outcry over the FCC's reported plan beginning almost immediately last month, Wheeler wrote a blog post calling out "misinformation" and insisting the proposal wouldn't allow "behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet." But an FCC official also told The Washington Post at the time that, under Wheeler's plan, broadband providers would gain "the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers."
Wheeler's more recent revisions would clarify that the FCC will look hard at these types of deals to be sure telecom companies don't disadvantage the websites that can't afford to pay extra, an agency official told the Journal.
For more information on the net neutrality debate, Stanford Law School has a helpful briefing, or check out our previous story on the FCC's net-neutrality proposal.