On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on rules with a name that might make eyes glaze over: network neutrality. But the notion that the Internet should be open to all legal applications equally also has a lot of eyes bulging with anger and passion. Both sides in this contentious debate say that the future of an open and free Internet is at stake.
The Internet hasn't been good to traditional record labels, but for musicians like Damian Kulash, lead singer of the band OK Go, it's opened up a new channel for creativity. Five years ago, the band made a cheap video for its song "A Million Ways."
"A Million Ways" by OK Go
"It was a video clip of a rehearsal of a totally ludicrous dance routine that we were going to do during a stage show," Kulash says. "A month later, we noticed that it had a few hundred thousand downloads, and we were shocked, because that was as many records as we had sold to date at that point."
The band was signed to EMI Music at the time, but neither side was happy with the arrangement, so they parted ways.
Kulash and OK Go have been doing fine without a major label, though, and they're not alone. Casey Rae Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, says there has been an explosion of independent musicians who can now reach their fans without a label or radio.
"In the old days, they would still have to navigate this pretty complex system of bottlenecks and gatekeepers to reach the fan," Hunter says. "The Internet means that you can develop and cultivate these sort of one-on-one relationships. They can become viral, like as in the case of the amazing OK Go videos that you see on YouTube. Or it can be just a sort of like, 'Holy crap, I'm talking to my favorite rock star on Twitter.' "
But Hunter says this freewheeling environment is threatened, and that many Internet service providers, or ISPs — such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T — would like to have more control over the Internet service they provide to homes.
"Imagine logging on to your favorite band's website and you wanted to buy something from them directly, and you were just somehow diverted to the ISP's favorite online music store," Hunter says.
Hunter and other consumer groups are hoping that the FCC will create network neutrality rules that would prevent the big telecoms from giving preferred service to certain content providers, while slowing down the service of others.
But George Ou, of the free-market-leaning think tank Digital Society, says the wealthier companies like Netflix, Google's YouTube and Apple's iTunes already pay more to get faster service from the ISPs.
"The Internet right now has multiple tiers," Ou says. "It's based on fee-based performance where, if you pay more, you get more."
Ou says that if the FCC steps in with network neutrality rules, as some public interest groups want, it would harm today's Internet.
"They're saying that we want to preserve the Internet, but in fact, what they're going to do is change the Internet such that services like YouTube and Netflix won't work."
Gigi Sohn, president of the consumer rights group Public Knowledge, disagrees, adding that the FCC should make sure the big telecoms can't make deals that favor some companies over others. Sohn says she isn't talking about companies that buy access to more servers or cables that run between cities. She's talking about how the Internet gets into our homes.
"It's about whether the cable, the telephone, the wireless company can favor certain content applications and services in the last mile between it and the subscriber," she says. "And that's what we object to, and that's what we need rules of the road to protect against."
Sohn says that Google and Verizon have already offered their own proposal, which includes tiered service.
OK Go's Damian Kulash says he fears a return to the days when big companies played gatekeeper and decided which writers, musicians and filmmakers got on TV and the radio, and into bookstores.
"It's just bad for creativity," Kulash says. "You know the best ideas don't win. The most money wins."
On Tuesday, the FCC will lay out a plan for network neutrality regulations, and the full commission will take a vote.