Net neutrality in the Sactosphere
Newsbreak: Sac residents have a stake in who controls the Internet
Does the average Sacramento resident have a stake in the net-neutrality debate? Depends. Do you use Facebook or YouTube? Ever tried dealing with Comcast? Prefer living in a democracy?
The big telecommunication corporations—which in many cases are the also the companies who produce movies, music and television shows—are losing out on the Internet to some unlikely competitors, like the talking dog and Antoine Dodson.
“As far as they are concerned, there’s way too much free entertainment on the Internet today. Comcast wants to make sure that you’re channeled into buying their products,” said Jesse Drew, film professor and director of the technocultural studies program at UC Davis. “With something like YouTube, they’d love to clamp down on that and make it so slow that you just give up in frustration.”
But you might not even know that your Internet provider is choking off content.
That’s what Robb Topolski, a software engineer and huge fan of barbershop-quartet music now living in Portland, Oregon, found out.
Topolski, a Comcast Internet subscriber, was getting frustrated trying to upload and share some of his favorite music with others on the Web.
The files were completely legal: Much of it, including digital copies of old turn-of-the-century wax cylinder recordings, has been in the public domain for years.
But Topolski discovered that Comcast was actively interfering with his attempts to share. Subsequent investigations by The Associated Press, and then the Federal Communications Commission, confirmed that Comcast was throttling certain kinds of content without notifying subscribers.
Enter filmmaker Georgia Sugimura Archer. Archer, a Sacramento native now living in Los Angeles, was working on a movie about Tower Records founder and Sacramento icon Russ Solomon.
Her investigation into the heart of the music industry led to an investigation of music piracy. That led her to an FCC hearing on Comcast’s throttling practices.
Topolski eventually became the hero of Archer’s film, Barbershop Punk, about modern-day censorship. Along the way, she snagged interviews with musicians and media activists, including OK Go frontman Damian Kulash and Ian MacKaye of the legendary punk band Fugazi and Dischord Records. It’s something of a revelation to see folks like MacKaye side with folks like Michele Combs of the conservative Christian Coalition of America.
Archer came away with other revelations. “The thing people really don’t understand is that the Internet is privatized today. It is not just ‘cyberspace,’ it’s not a giant public forum,” she told SN&R.
“We don’t let the oil industry function without regulation and expect them to protect the coastline. But when it comes to the Internet, we’re really not regulating these businesses at all,” she added.
Archer is still working on the distribution for the film, a year after it debuted. She said some distributors have shied away from it because it’s so critical of Comcast. So mostly it shows at film festivals, like the Sacramento International Film Festival this past spring.
One of the founders of the festival is Ron Cooper, who also serves as director of Access Sacramento. The group runs the public-access cable channels 17 and 18, and has as its mission to put the tools of broadcasting and media into the hands of ordinary citizens. Over the years, the mantra for Cooper has been “More speech is better.”
He said that while much of the Internet bandwidth out there is dedicated to streaming funny video clips and Hollywood blockbusters, some parts of it do provide a crucial public space.
“Two years ago, Twitter was just considered silliness. Today it’s pulling down dictators,” said Cooper.
Still, nobody is taking to the streets in Sacramento over net neutrality.
Drew said he thinks there’s less political will to save the Internet than there was even a couple of years ago.
“The economic crisis has encouraged people to say, ‘We can’t do anything that might harm the corporate world,’” Drew said.
Said Cooper, “I think the best we can hope for at this time is to be more vigilant. Be smart, ask questions; ‘Who controls this content?’”