Photo by Matthew Wiebe
I’m a researcher at the Imaging Research Center at UMBC. We explore new forms of storytelling and image-making made possible with emerging technologies. A major goal of our efforts is finding ways our society can do a better job engaging people in valuable ideas and information to serve health, education, and other democratic needs. The Internet has been a real breakthrough for us. When broadcasting alone ruled the day, such social aims were essentially locked out of commercially controlled television. Still creating information-oriented, prosocial media is always tough because it has to do more than attract and sustain attention. We are now confronting an issue that, among other things, could leave us and many others with both hands tied behind our backs.
At issue is the shifting of economic control of the Internet from consumers to those with the most wealth. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) we pay to connect our homes and business to the Internet and broker content, now want also to charge the content companies like Netflix according to the bandwidth their media require to deliver. This will allow ISPs to pull revenue from both ends. This is similar to what happened when cable TV providers (what the ISPs used to be) slowly started putting ads back in programming after selling their service as ad-free.
You might wonder what is wrong with that. Wouldn’t it save end users from paying those costs? Maybe, but we lose something much larger. It would open a Pandora’s Box of ways to turn new media into the kind of restrictive tool of money and power TV was because it shifts power away from consumers (citizens) toward those with the power to manipulate the media landscape. The end game will inevitably be that instead of you choosing what you’re interested in, no matter how obscure or marginal, and having that choice honored with the same quality delivery a mainstream choice would get, your service will vary to privilege the content companies who can pay the most. The result will ghettoize smaller operations and constrict innovation and entrepreneurship. And by effectively reducing the diversity of voices and efforts we can see, hear and interact with, it can’t help but diminish culture, and consequently, democracy itself. So the stakes are very high.
We know how private control works because we’ve been there. Television was originally envisioned as having broad social application. For a time, news was less of an overtly commercial mission than it is now. There were moments of risk-taking when challenging programming appeared on the air waves (within much tighter limits than is the case now with the Internet). For example, All in the Family and Roots were two 70’s shows, produced by Norman Lear. They took on traditional notions of race and history to become the most watched shows to date when they were broadcast. Then, the network pulled back from controversial programming. The result was that Lear couldn’t get other shows made. In the culture of business, even if some degree of controversy sells for a period, “social good” can’t easily be a factor for a public company serving stockholders. Not long ago, when our lab pitched a promising web start up idea with both commercial and social potential (a “dual bottom line” idea) to venture capitalists, they said social component turned them off regardless of commercial potential. It just didn’t match the culture of business.
While social aims can seem ambiguous, the ability of media to save lives is not. Few Americans are aware that outside the US, media has proven a very effective tool in public health. When South Africa was in the deepest throws of an HIV epidemic and desperately needed to shift norms concerning men’s condom use, they successfully used media. Instead of merely dropping 30-second public service ads into off-hour programming (as we would have in the US) South African officials hired top writers and producers to create a prime time dramatic series that used superb, culturally-aware storytelling to challenge attitudes about gender, sex and responsibility.
Because they had access, they put it on the air in prime time. Soul City became the number one show, expanded to radio and print, and then, saved millions of lives — a change that we in the US struggle even to imagine. Having our own public air waves structured instead as a business tool ultimately led to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Communication Programs (part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health—perhaps the most respected institution of its kind in the world) to all but end its media efforts in the US. According to Ben Lozare, a JHU researcher at the time, the last straw was when PBS would not allow an HIV-positive character on Sesame street as other nations had. The cost of private sector control of media, if measured in lives and lost resources, would likely be more than Americans would accept. Now that the medical community is acknowledging that the biggest factor in people’s health is the choices they make, the potential of media to shift the norms that affect those choices has enormous, but largely untapped potential.
The Internet was invented with taxpayer money — public money. But instead of building out the infrastructure of the Internet with public money, we’ve relied on — or allowed, depending on how you look at it — corporations to do that work. Now they have a real stake to claim ownership. They are legally obligated to make as much money as they can. Under the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling, they will be able to sell Internet performance to the highest bidders. Even if affording themselves that revenue stream would reduce what you and I have to pay (highly unlikely) the changes ISPs are now allowed to make to the Internet as we know it will plow under the level playing field that has allowed the richness of the Internet to flourish, and ultimately remove it as a social tool of any consequence. Consequently, I’m making a seemingly ironic proposal: We the people should be willing to pay to keep the Internet free.
Let me be crystal clear, I am not arguing that the Internet should not be a marketplace where private enterprise can make big bank — quite the opposite, were fighting to multiply that. The question is whether that potential should be limited to privileging that purpose over all others, and privileging established players with the most resources.
What can you do? The FCC needs to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, and put in place rules that prevent special interests from privileging the flow of some data over others. This will only happen if American’s overwhelm the FCC with impassioned voices for net neutrality, before July 15! Grab any part of this article, add your own words and:
1. Email the FCC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Go to http://act.freepress.net/sign/
3. Email all your representatives.
4. Tell your friends, family and neighbors to do the same.
Once this public asset is gone, it’s gone.