The internet today is an information utopia. High-traffic giants like Google and eBay coexist peacefully with tiny blogs nobody reads. Netizens can access the arcane and low-budget just as easily as they can flashy, spendy sites.
But such freedom of access may not last: A contingent led by the telecommunications industry is lobbying to change the face of the internet by transforming it from an information highway to an information tollway.
These industry efforts fly in the face of the principle of 'net neutrality,' which contends that internet service providers should treat all websites equally. According to net neutrality advocates, service providers like Verizon and AT&T shouldn't be able to charge a premium for faster services.If the telecom companies are allowed ignore the principals of net neutrality, service providers could end up taxing websites and email, in effect creating a 'tiered' internet that favors websites with the money to pay for such services over the little guys that give the blogosphere its character. Some argue that telecoms could even block some content altogether based on who's sending it, what it is, or where it's going.
Not surprisingly, netizens are not eager to let their beloved internet fall into the hands of big business. Organizations like We Are the Web are sounding the alarm and letting folks know what they can do to keep the internet neutral. We Are the Web has tapped the creative possibilities of online media to deliver its message with a fun series music videos featuring internet-borne 'celebrities.' ?Each celebrity also gives a touching testimonial explaining what's at stake in the net neutrality fight. WeAreTheWeb.org has gained wide acclaim and was nominated for a 2007 Webby Award, one of the most prestigious awards on the internet.
Utne.com spoke with Riley Kane, cocreator of We Are the Web, about the music video, net neutrality, and what people can do to help.
How'd you come to make a music video about net neutrality?
It's a pretty shocking idea that internet providers would be able to choose what content they provide, and we saw how that could hurt the independents. So we learned about net neutrality. To us, it seemed like such a basic threat to the internet as we know it and love it that we thought it would be cool to do a public service to promote net neutrality. But the stuff that we'd read was fairly dry -- the issue itself is fairly dry, and it's kind of complicated -- so we wanted to simplify the message.
We thought that if you could get the message across in an entertaining way, people would really gravitate to that. So we started talking about, 'Wouldn't it be cool, almost in a Bob Geldof, 'We Are the World' way, to gather some of these cult internet celebrities that got their fame through the internet,' like Leslie Hall, with her gem sweaters, and the Tron Guy, and Peter Pan.
We had all of them come to Minneapolis and we shot the video. But they also -- and I hope people are checking these out on the website -- did testimonials about what the internet means to them and how it was a platform for their artistry. They're heartfelt testimonials, and they're fairly serious. I mean the video is pretty wacky, but the testimonials are pretty powerful.
?How would you characterize WeAreTheWeb.org?
It's a public awareness campaign, a rallying cry for the independents on the internet, like the Peter Pan characters, to speak out for other independent internet characters.
?Why did you choose the format that you did? Why a music video?
WeAreTheWeb.org does have some text and links to articles and sites, but video just seems so easily passed around, and it seems more personal. If you can get a message across in an entertaining and humorous way, people are much more likely to listen to it and to feel good about it. Humor rules on the internet.
People opposed to net neutrality say it isn't really about neutrality at all -- that net neutrality calls for more regulations, if necessary, to keep the internet 'neutral.'
Net neutrality is definitely about regulating the internet more. I think [telecommunications companies] see that there's more money to be made without regulations -- that's why they want the two-tiered system. They can't really make any money off of, say, Peter Pan's site, but that site has every right to be out there. That's the genius of the internet -- it's access to anything, equally, and that's being threatened.
What do you think would be lost if telecom and cable companies had their way and create tiered service?
I think, like Leslie Hall put it, people wouldn't be able to learn about gem sweaters. She was being half serious about that, but the idea is that people would lose out on a lot.?
Watching the debate over net neutrality unfold, have you learned anything new about the way big business interacts with democracy in the United States?
You know, it's interesting -- companies like Google are on the side of net neutrality, and in their lobbying they didn't spend nearly as much money as telecoms and cable companies. I think seeing how much money [telecom and cable companies] willing to spend was a wake-up call for people who are pro-net neutrality. It's going to be hard to turn it around. Definitely in this Congress it seems like it has a much better chance -- net neutrality kind of breaks down largely as a democratic issue. [Senator] Ron Wyden and Representative Edward Markey are leading the fight to pass a net neutrality bill.
I recently stumbled upon the website 'Hands Off the Internet,' which sounds, and seemed, like a pro-net neutrality website. It advocates a totally unregulated internet. But then I found that it's actually dominated by telecommunication companies.
It's like when Philip Morris does anti-smoking ads!
The way you've gotten the message into popular culture seems to have been effective. You've called people's attention to the fact that so much of our culture happens on the internet now and to how all of that could be lost.?
WeAreTheWeb.org really caught fire on blogs. Now, well over 2 million people have checked it out. It really took off beyond our expectations. It was featured on Yahoo's homepage.
The video managed to make the leap onto radio and TV and into magazines. That was another goal, too, to take the message offline. It's been popular online, but it's also shown up on G4 and Vice magazine. It was featured on American Public Media, and then I was interviewed by Air America, it was on VH1.
What are your future plans for WeAreTheWeb.org?
We've talked about doing a 'Part Two' music video, where we'd get maybe Ze Frank, Tom [Anderson] from MySpace, Dane Cook, the poodle-workout woman... some of the people we contacted about the first one. Maybe Al Gore, the inventor of the internet. We've also talked about getting users to send in clips of themselves singing a lyric or parts of the song to try to get away from celebrities and show average people.
?What can people interested in keeping the net neutral do?
On our site we have a spot where you can contact your congressperson. That's really the best thing you can do: Contact your congressperson and tell him or her that it's important to you that the internet stays open and neutral.
Want more? Read up on net neutrality, media reform, and the FCC in Utne Reader's July/August article:
Big Media Meets Its Match