Remember that little thing called net neutrality that FMC and our musician and independent label pals have been talking about for years? Well, this week AT&T made a move that underscores why this principle is so important to creators.
You might already know about how AT&T and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are charging subscribers extra if they exceed a certain amount of data per month. This might suck for users, but is within the rights of these corporations to do. Where things get iffy is when an ISP exempts its own services and content—or those of its preferred partners—from being counted against the data caps.
When the Federal Communications Commission issued its Open Internet Order back in 2010, many felt that the rules—meant to preserve a level online playing field—did not go far enough to protect users on the mobile side. On the “wireline” internet, the Order prohibits ISPs from discriminating against lawful content that moves through their pipes. The rules apply differently to mobile networks—wireless providers have more leeway to block certain applications or devices. And there’s nothing in the rules for either wireline or wireless that would explicitly prohibit ISPs from squeezing content providers through “sponsored” data arrangements like the one AT&T just announced.
So why does this matter for musicians?
Chances are you’ve heard about the debates around artist compensation on streaming music services, with Spotify taking a lot of the heat. We’re not gonna get into all that here (we’ve done so elsewhere), but we can say that if ISPs are allowed to pick winners and losers among applications and services, musicians might find themselves locked into systems that don’t play to their economic advantage. For example, the service Bandcamp has been championed for its flexibility in letting artists and indie labels to set their own pricing. But what happens when a mobile provider decides that the Bandcamp app counts against a user’s data caps, but Spotify doesn’t? What about a future innovation designed by artists for artists?
This issue gets to the heart of why a level online playing field is crucial to creators and other innovators.
FMC has been following data caps for some time. Back in 2011, we joined Public Knowledge and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative (OTI) to propose the FCC take a closer look at data caps. The FCC has taken up the issue via its Open Internet Advisory Committee, which published its first report late last year. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot in the way of takeaways or recommendations. As usage patterns change and more people shift to mobile, it becomes even more important to have clear rules of the road to prevent ISPs from gouging consumers and hindering content providers.
All of this is taking place at a crucial hour for net neutrality. Even though the Open Internet Order treats mobile networks differently than wireline, the FCC’s rules are important to preserving accessibility for all users. Absent these provisions, ISPs would have more freedom to do whatever they want, to the disadvantage of creators of all kinds. Currently, these rules are being contested in federal court by Verizon, and a decision is expected any day. The outcome could go a few different ways, and it may be that the FCC will need to do what they probably should have done to begin with—reclassify broadband service to prevent discrimination regardless of how the user accesses the Internet. And there’s always the chance that Congress will pick up the ball and clarify the FCC’s authority once and for all. (Hey, anything’s possible!)
We’ll keep you updated because we know that musicians can make a difference. In fact, you already have: there probably wouldn’t be ANY rules preserving access and innovation online if thousands of you hadn’t already weighed in via the Rock the Net campaign. So keep those gloves warm— the fight ain’t over yet.