The End of the Free and Open Internet?

Austin’s creative class worries what the FCC net neutrality ruling means for life online

Illustration by Jason Stout / Thinkstock

The internet was built on core principles: open, easy access for all. It was built by governments and academics, away from the profit-motived direction of any one business, so that all citizens and all businesses benefit equally. Now the Federal Communications Commission has struck a blow at the underlying concept of net neutrality, and many Austin tech and creative firms fear they could soon be paying the price.

The fight over net neutrality is a long one, and opponents have taken a position that key founders and developers hold as antithetical to the very purpose of the internet. For the last decade, the large telecom firms have lobbied politicians and the FCC to allow new rules that would allow them to slow down or speed up access. In 2015, at the prompting of President Barack Obama, the FCC voted 3-2 to classify internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers, as defined by Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.

That means ISPs are classified like a telephone company and cannot discriminate for or against a particular website or service. What that means for consumers is simple: Any website will download at the same speed as any other website, just as a telephone company cannot deliberately slow down your phone conversation, or bleep out every other word.

On Dec. 14, the FCC reversed its position. FCC Chair Ajit Pai and fellow Republican appointees Michael O'Rielly and newest commissioner Brendan Carr approved the euphemistically titled Restoring Internet Freedom order, removing the Title II protections.

The process has been highly politicized and incredibly controversial, with the FCC facing legal inquiry into why it ignored widespread evidence that millions of pro-repeal online comments registered may have been falsified. SXSW Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest said the opposition was bolstered by "fake chatbot accounts, and it's hard to have meaningful dialogue when one side is driving a shadow campaign to influence the issue."

For Forrest, the change is a direct threat to "the creative ecosystem we have come to know in the connected world. But, more importantly, if a decision is going to be made that will critically affect innovation and infrastructure on a global scale, we have to pay attention and listen to all of the stakeholders."

So far, the most positive response to the FCC vote in Texas has come from Republican senator and longtime net neutrality opponent Ted Cruz. He even got into a public spat with Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, comparing Title II to the iron fist of the Galactic Empire, and the plucky online entrepreneurs for whom he claimed to speak, the Rebellion. But for many of those entrepreneurs, Cruz has the metaphor upside down. The Rebels want the return to the rule of fairness and order that net neutrality represents, and the FCC vote has instead unleashed the capricious and arbitrary forces of one-sided power – all held by the ISPs.

The decision has been slammed by powerful groups like the Internet Association. which represents major online companies including Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter called repeal "a blow to creativity, innovation, and free speech," while Netflix tweeted that "without #NetNeutrality, we would never have been able to grow into the business we have today. There's a whole future of startups that deserve that chance."

Those concerns are matched and amplified in Austin, where tech firms and online content creation are huge economic drivers. Mayor Steve Adler wrote that the order is "bad news for Austin's tech scene and our job market. ... Net neutrality gives start-ups reliable access to the lifeblood of a tech company. Repealing net neutrality hurts our entrepreneurs' ability to realize ideas and get them to consumers."

Austin Film Commission Director Brian Gannon said his office is "100 percent for net neutrality," and fearful of what it could mean for independent filmmakers who rely on services like VOD for distribution. He said, "Most ISPs produce their own content and run their own streaming platforms, so there is a good chance they will push their own streaming platforms and services along with their own in-house content." He also expressed concern about the impact on Austin's film blogger community, which has played a significant role in promoting up-and-coming talent. "What if a critic writes a negative critique of one of the releases produced by a partner of a major ISP? The ISP could potentially steer traffic from the writer's site."

The most immediate concern is throttling – that ISPs will slow access to sites not on their servers, or charge more for faster downloads. For a video-heavy site like Austin-based entertainment podcasters Double Toasted, that could be fatal. Founder Korey Coleman said, "Throttling our speed will cost us more, cost our consumers more, and if we can't pay for faster lanes our site and videos will be slow to access. This, of course, will turn people away. Without those users we can't afford to stay in business."

Coleman was so concerned that Double Toasted broadcast a special episode in November solely dedicated to the issue. He said, "It only seemed natural to do that show being that this is an issue that directly affects us." However, he also saw how it could affect his audience. "I say this with complete humbleness, but people have shared their stories about how we help them get through the workday, school, or even extremely rough parts of their lives. In a sense we do provide a service, and our community is very worried about that being taken away. I get emails every day asking how the net neutrality repeal will affect us and how soon. I did that show to help put people at ease, and let them know we are listening to their concerns."

Other Austin creatives have already voiced their fears, and less diplomatically. Burnie Burns, CEO and founder of Rooster Teeth studios, referenced Dungeons & Dragons when he tweeted, "Internet misses saving throw. Alignment shifts from Neutral to Lawful Evil." Local gaming house Devolver Digital's official response was even more blunt: "Fuck the FCC," a statement that founder Mike Wilson said was approved by the entire team.

However, it's not just tech firms and online content providers that are anxious about what the vote means. Austin artist Tim Doyle estimates that around half of the sales for his studio and print works Nakatomi Inc. are made online. However, he added, "Art and printing we do for other clients? They find me through the internet. So really, I'd say 85 percent of my business comes through the web, even if it's not direct purchases on my sale page." If ISPs find ways to manipulate search engine results to favor their own clients, he added, "they could definitely make it a lot harder for sites to find customers."

With the FCC order finally taking effect in early 2018, the future is now unsure. Coleman said, "Truth is, no one really knows at the moment how far broadband providers are willing to take advantage of the repeal, how much it will be challenged, how lawsuits will affect the decision, or how legal it truly will be if providers push too far." However, he is less concerned about ISPs targeting smaller content providers like his team than the fallout of the conflict between giant corporations. "There's a feeling the real war will be between telecommunications companies and big players and social media."

While the future is ambiguous, forces are lined up to punch back. U.S. Senate Democrats have announced they will use the Congressional Review Act to force a vote on overturning the order, while more than a dozen states have joined a lawsuit against the FCC filed by New York A.G. Eric Schneiderman. Even if those legal challenges fail, Coleman is optimistic that the outrage about losing net neutrality could become a campaign issue in 2018. He said, "At some point that feedback could potentially turn into votes, and for them that's what really matters."

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Net Neutrality, Steve Adler, Korey Coleman, Brian Gannon, Mike Wilson, Tim Doyle, Devolver Digital, Rooster Teeth

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