Net Neutrality Discussion with Patricia Aufderheide

Last week, Kartemquin board member Dr. Patricia Aufderheide - who is usually based in Washington, D.C. as co-director of Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) - visited us for an informal discussion on net neutrality, co-hosted by In These Times.

Through her work at CMSI, Dr. Aufderheide has long been on the front lines of the fair use fight on behalf documentary makers and a range of other artistic disciplines, and in advocating for the health of public media. Her debrief to our producers and staff this week was another step in this mission, filling us in on what the key issues around net neutrality are for independent media makers and postulating where they’re headed in the future.

So what exactly is net neutrality? Very simply put, it is the belief that “all bits should be treated equal”. That is, an Internet Service Provider (ISP), such as Comcast, should be impartial about the transmission of content within its network, allowing indiscriminate "common carriage" to all who wish to participate.

However, as Dr. Aufderheide explained, understanding net neutrality fully is not quite that simple. The Internet today has become an incredibly complicated collection of public and private entities, all with hardware and software, national and international, peering agreements. And while peering agreements were long ago simple enough to exclude the payment between parties, today many large companies like Netflix and Facebook may pay ISPs in order to have the huge amounts of data they serve delivered faster to their users. The concern with this development is that there may be a lack of regulation and transparency over potential abuses or extortion within this system.

Recently, in response to slower Internet connectivity among subscribers, Netflix announced publicly that they had struck a new deal to pay Comcast more to deliver data from an intermediary site closer in proximity to its customers. However, the question that the Federal Communications Commission is now investigating is, did Comcast actively do something to slow Netflix’s service down in the first place?

The Internet is not currently being regulated to the same degree as the telecoms industry, nor has it ever been. And, for complex reasons, the FCC cannot heavily regulate the Internet without the stakeholder corporations fighting back. Because of this, and in addition to the complexities of its definition, Dr. Aufderheide noted that no one really knows what heavily regulated net neutrality would actually look like. And, what would enforcement and transparency look like?

In our discussion we noted how pressing this issue of net neutrality is today when the Internet has become a massive and essential part of most of our lives. As technology allows us to all become information producers and independent media makers, is it paramount that we understand the terms of the debate. In our own status as documentary producers who are increasingly reliant upon the internet to distribute our films, we have a vested interest in pushing for an environment where creativity and the flow of information are not hampered by a 'pay-to-play' scenario.

In summary, Pat stated that we need serious regulation of the public internet (our broadband connection), and so we need to urge the FCC to reclassify internet, from the lightly regulated "information services" category to the telecommunications category, where ISPs can be treated as common carriers.

You can submit your comments to the FCC on this issue and learn more about the open internet here.

In addition to a Kartemquin board member, Dr. Aufderheide is a professor at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. and the director of the Center for Media and Social Impact. She is a renowned cultural journalist, policy analyst, author, and editor on topics related to media and society, specifically on issues of fair use and free speech.