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The Future of the Internet: What Artists, Entrepreneurs, Communities Could Lose

Eric K. Arnold | 12/1/2010, 6:50 a.m.

Within 24 hours of the shooting of Oscar Grant - an unarmed, 22-year-old African American killed by a white BART police officer on New Year's Day 2009 - Oakland rap artist Mistah F.A.B. recorded a poignant, heartfelt tribute titled, "My Life."

F.A.B. recorded the song to "enlighten people to what's going on." But given the highly controversial, racially charged subject matter, he said, "I knew that the local radio station wasn't gonna play it. I knew the clubs weren't going to play it."

"My Life" was too hot for mainstream outlets to touch. But thanks to the Internet, F.A.B. could bypass those venues and post a video of the song on YouTube. It quickly received more than 15,000 views. "My Life" was also noted on numerous sites around cyberspace, from San Francisco's Indybay.org to Philadelphia's OkayPlayer.com to Helsinki's Multitunes.com. The song appeared as a link more than 45,000 times between January and April 2009.

The exposure F.A.B got for his online-only video illustrates precisely what's at stake in an ongoing fight between telecommunications companies and free speech advocates over keeping the Internet open and unrestricted. The conflict centers on the preservation of network neutrality - a cornerstone principle of consumer online rights that the Internet shouldn't be a toll road, with cost-based barriers to entry. In other words, no Internet service provider should create a cyber-Fastrak lane for those who can pay premium prices for high-download speed and a slow-moving, congested lane for everyone else.

Without net neutrality, F.A.B would have found access to his Internet video at the mercy of the toll road. Such a prospect would have inhibited his efforts, as well as those of others, to raise awareness over an important community issue.

Indeed, immediately after the Grant killing, cell-phone video footage of the shooting went viral over cyberspace, raising questions about how BART authorities would handle the matter. Rappers Ise Lyfe, Beeda Weeda, and AP. 9 posted MP3s and videos expressing their own concerns about Grant's death. Though not previously known for political statements, AP.9 and Beeda Weeda took on both police brutality and quality-of-life issues in their songs.

Meanwhile, the video for Lyfe's song, "Hard in the Paint" - shot on cell-phone and Flip video cameras inside BART, in tribute to the citizen journalists who recorded the incident - displayed a powerful, low-tech realism that was a far cry from the overly stylized look of most commercial music videos.

In surfacing issues of racism and accountability that would not have come out in mainstream media, these Internet videos highlight the importance of net neutrality not only to free expression but to community empowerment as well.

What's the Beef?

For years, media advocates and Internet service providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have been locked in acrimonious debates over net neutrality. Both sides opine for "Internet freedom," yet they hold widely differing views of what "freedom" means.

For neutrality advocates, Internet freedom refers to equal, affordable access for the public to the online applications and content of their choice. The ISPs, on the other hand, say a free Internet means a broadband and wireless industry unfettered by government oversight - and high-speed cyber lanes for those who can pay.

The conflict has been mired in so much technical jargon that it has failed to engage widespread attention. Yet, the heated battles now being waged before the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., will determine the future of the Internet. At stake is whether corporate zaibatsu - or financial conglomerates - become gatekeepers of virtual speech, content and traffic, or whether independent entrepreneurs and small businesses can easily access online technology to establish and promote their digital presence. For artists, the question is whether they'll be able to maintain freedom of expression across multimedia platforms. How this policy war is resolved will shape the American economy and American pop culture for decades.

New Monopoly on the Rise

Foes of net neutrality claim that the FCC traditionally has taken a hands-off approach to Internet regulation. But advocates say that though it was never designated an official rule, net neutrality has been the operating principle of a free and open Internet from its inception. The need for making net neutrality an actual regulation is especially critical now, say the advocates. With potential partnerships between Google/Verizon and NBC/Comcast on the horizon, a digital version of what happened to radio and TV following passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act becomes a likely scenario.

Essentially, the Telecomm Act removed federal restrictions on how many media outlets a company could own in any particular market. This deregulation led to a consolidation trend that eliminated mom'n'pop-owned radio stations, standardized playlists favoring major-label artists, gutted community affairs programming, and resulted in a de facto moratorium on discussions about political topics or socially conscious themes.

In the Bay Area, for example, Clear Channel terminated individual public affairs directors at each of the 11 stations it owned in the market, replacing them with one director for the entire region. KMEL dropped its hip-hop public affairs program, "Street Knowledge," and fired host Davey-D - a 10-year veteran of the station who was its most important link to the local community. Before consolidation, local artists from Digital Underground to Tupac to Hammer had built successful careers due in part to KMEL's support. But after consolidation, the number of local, independent acts receiving airplay slowed to a trickle. Moreover, DJs lost considerable authority in programming decisions.

Following his experiences at commercial radio, Davey-D became a pioneer of Internet media with his site, "Davey-D's Hip-Hop Corner." He was one of the first in the hip-hop community to recognize what the battle over net neutrality meant for the future of independent artists. In 2006, he wrote an "Open Letter to Hip-Hop," warning of efforts to "redirect traffic to a handful of places and media outlets that [corporations] can influence and control." Four years later, Davey-D's admonition resonates more than ever.

As online video replaces radio and television as the primary form of consumer media in America, a new wave of consolidation threatens to take over the Web. None of the Oscar Grant tributes, for instance, are available on VEVO, a music video site owned by Sony and Universal that only features artists signed to those labels. If consumers watching VEVO want to hear independent artists with socially conscious content, tough. What they're getting instead are mainstream acts like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Shakira, or gangsta rappers like Slim Thug.

In the post-Telecomm Act age, the Internet ostensibly offers a final frontier for independent community expression, or localism. For socially conscious rappers, the Web provides an especially vital resource. Often, it's the only avenue to reach the masses, said spoken word and hip-hop artist Ise Lyfe.

"It's a way to knock down some of the barriers between underground and mainstream," he said.

But as Davey-D continues to warn his followers, without the even playing field that net neutrality provides, the burgeoning digital divide between mainstream and independent artists will only widen, in the same way that occurred in radio and TV.

Impact on Communities


Meanwhile, at the grassroots level, community groups increasingly use the Internet for outreach and education efforts. At the Oakland Green Youth Media Arts Center, online accessibility plays a critical role in this nonprofit's mission. Committed to green practices and alternatives to violence for at-risk inner-city kids, the center sits strategically between the crime-ridden drug turfs of West and North Oakland. Its location provides a neutral, safe zone for young people.

Executive Director Galen Peterson explains that the center offers programs in creating socially responsible media. The Internet, he said, is "the foundation of all [our] media arts training. It's integrated into every single program."

Peterson said the Internet allows youth to strategize, organize and mobilize around community issues that directly affect them. He points to the Turf Unity project, a series of CDs created by youth artists seeking constructive alternatives to violence and crime. Internet access, he said, has allowed these local artists to network with artists in other cities facing similar problems. Restricting that access would hamper their ability to reach beyond their immediate community in their violence prevention efforts, Peterson said.

The Internet also plays a vital role in cultural outreach efforts to communities underserved by traditional media. For example, Oakland-based CaribelinQ publishes an online newsletter covering cultural events centered around the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. It reaches 10,000 people, connecting ethnic, immigrant, and low-income populations - most of African-American, African or Caribbean descent - who don't necessarily all live in the same locales.

When the Haitian earthquake hit last January, CaribelinQ's e-newsletter, caribelinq.com, helped the local Haitian community spread the word about Bay Area benefit concerts and relief efforts supporting grassroots organizations in Haiti. Theo Williams, CaribelinQ's executive producer, said their community outreach efforts would be much more difficult if Internet access became severely restricted.

"Before the Internet, you had to literally go to those communities and knock on doors," he said. For these communities, he added, losing easy Internet access would be "devastating."

The FCC's Role


Beyond the question of who could afford to be on a virtual toll road is the prospect of plain old censorship.

In a 2006 CNET article, Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU's Washington office director, pointed out the serious First Amendment implications that were being raise by the debate over net neutrality. "We are already seeing ISPs controlling speech with which they disagree," she wrote.

Fredrickson noted that TimeWarner-AOL blocked emails mentioning an advocacy campaign against the company's controversial plan to bill its customers an extra fee per email for spam filters. Similarly, BellSouth reportedly prevented customers in Tennessee and Florida from accessing MySpace and YouTube, while AT&T censored comments critical of the Bush administration during a broadcast of a live Pearl Jam concert. Calls and emails to AT&T seeking comment were not returned.

In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission determined that Comcast had secretly blocked its customers from using a free file-sharing application called BitTorrent. However, the FCC's authority to enforce its finding was nullified by the U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. That decision, say advocates, has given license to service providers to continue to slow down or block sites they disapprove of for political, business, cultural or other reasons.

Concerns over these and other net neutrality issues are why the FCC is working to restore it's authority over broadband Internet by redefining certain telecommunications policies. Last May, the commission announced a national broadband plan that aims to subsidize high-speed Internet expansion into underserved communities and protect an open Internet.

Though still a work in progress, the goals of the FCC's plan are to prevent restrictions on Web content and ensure high-speed Internet access for all Americans. It also proposes to guarantee that advertised connectivity speeds are maintained. Yet, the most ambitious part of the plan may be its economic development component, which some are calling a digital New Deal for inner-city, low-income and rural areas.

If enacted, the national broadband plan could facilitate economic empowerment for individuals and small businesses by routing more stimulus funds and training tools through agencies like the Department of Labor, Small Business Administration, Economic Development Administration and National Science Foundation.

"The promise of the Internet is equal communication rights for everybody," said Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a Bay Area media advocacy organization based in Oakland. Rosenberg's group has joined with other organizations such as Free Press, Center for Media Justice and the Future of Music Coalition to promote more public involvement in the debates over net neutrality and the future of the Internet.

The FCC's plan is intended to fulfill that promise, said Rosenberg. Unfortunately, the commission's agenda has been "muddled by misleading big bucks ad campaigns, scores of lobbyists, and worse, industry-funded groups masquerading as consumer advocates," she added.

Telecoms Push Back

One of the most vocal industry-backed groups is the Atlanta-based Alliance for Digital Equality.

According to Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report, "ADE is what's called an 'astroturf' organization, created to carry out the political will of its corporate funders while pretending to be a grassroots operation arising out of black and Latino communities."

ADE strongly opposes net neutrality and the FCC's moves to redefine broadband policies. In several statements released over the past 6 months, ADE chairman Julius Hollis has repeatedly contended that the FCC plan stifles economic development, especially in communities of color, and that any policy shift "could conceivably keep 100 million Americans economically disenfranchised." Calls and emails sent to ADE seeking comment were not returned.

Hollis has also cited a controversial study by the NYU School of Law's Advanced Communications Law & Policy Institute, which projects the loss of 500,000 jobs in the telecommunications field over the next five years if the broadband plan is adopted. However, analysts say the wireless industry -- which already services 90 percent of Americans with cell phones - may have maxed out on growth, making job losses inevitable. Furthermore, say experts, the study doesn't address growth in industries other than wireless or broadband, while the FCC plan is specifically designed to stimulate economic development in local communities.

Who Benefits from Net Neutrality?


For inner-city areas like Richmond's Iron Triangle, San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point, and West and East Oakland, the FCC's plan, if achieved, could drastically reduce unemployment. It would also spur community involvement, investment and economic expansion - which could ultimately reduce crime and recidivism rates.

In journalist and webmaster Davey-D's view, the bottom line is the dollar sign.

"If net neutrality is not upheld," he said, ISPs stand to "make beaucoup money from what they can charge." The Internet, he added, speaking in the past tense as if the worst has already happened, "allowed the little guy with a good idea to have [a] voice right alongside the mediocre, slow-moving big guy with lots of money."

San Francisco-based independent filmmaker Kevin Epps is one of those little guys who symbolize the artistic and entrepreneurial aspects of the net neutrality debate. Epps grew up in San Francisco's economically depressed Hunters Point neighborhood. In 2001, he launched his career with his critically acclaimed film, "Straight Outta Hunters Point."

The filmmaker specializes in telling stories the mainstream media haven't covered well or have failed to report at all. His other films include "The Black Rock," a historical account of African American prisoners on Alcatraz, and "Popped in Oakland," which humanizes the victims of gun violence.

For Epps, the Internet has been a key resource, allowing him to build a successful career in documentary films without a big publicity machine or major studio behind him. Most importantly, he said, the Internet has given him a platform "to promote independent film and matters I feel are important to my community."

As an artist, Epps views the net neutrality fight as "big corporations who are already in power trying to hold onto their power." They do so by controlling distribution channels, he said, and by trying to push out "small, indie mom and pops [trying to create] innovative, unique content which fits underserved niches."

The open Internet, Epps said, has not only allowed him to pursue his creative visions, but given him entree to a global audience he could not otherwise access.

"People are buying my stuff in Japan," he said. "That type of commerce has been invaluable."

This story was produced under the Internet Reporting Fellowship, a program sponsored by the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism in collaboration with New America Media. A version of this story appeared as a series in OaklandLocal.