Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Dystopia Now: The Death of Diversity and Freedom Under the New FCC [Contributor: Melanie]

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“This is for everyone.” — Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Internet

You sit down at the computer your parents bought you on refurb for Christmas (because they like helping our their impressive college graduate who finally got their own apartment at the age of 28). You open your browser and watch that little spinning wheel turn and turn. You’re connected to WiFi, and the signal’s fine. But you’re drumming your fingers on the counter. You’re staring at the wall, waiting. You’re a newly minted grad student with a job just slightly above minimum wage — because that’s the going rate for over 20 years of education — and you couldn’t afford the premium broadband package from your providers.

When you finally do get the Internet working, you go straight to your email and then log off. You haven’t been able to get on Netflix in months because the streaming fee to the providers is just too steep for your budget. In addition to being way behind in your binge-watching of Mindhunter, you also couldn’t watch that amazing documentary on poverty that all the people who can afford streaming services are talking about. You had that idea for a start-up you floated in college. But there’s no way you can afford the bandwidth fee the providers require for average access to a website. Your telemetry monitoring app will just never see the light of day and that promise you made to your grandma after her heart attack was just an irresponsible pipe dream you couldn’t afford. You really should be grateful for that retail job and weekend job as a bike courier. You’ll get over not having the Internet and get over not being able to take more online classes to finally get your teaching certificate.

This is not the distant year of 2049 where the ozone is gone and resources are depleted. This is 2018. And you are every single person living in the United States.

If this sounds dystopian, that’s because it is. This is the very real future waiting for us on the other side of that New Year’s ball drop unless we make a lot of noise. The current FCC chair, Ajit Pai (a former lawyer for Verizon), has taken unprecedented actions toward the repeal of net neutrality. While a reclassification of broadband providers from Title II common carriers to Title I information services was expected, what Mr. Pai proposes is a carte blanche for ISP (Internet service providers) across the Internet where they can essentially do whatever they want (block content, charge for any services, require websites to pay fees to even be seen by users) as long as they disclose this in their contracts and to the FCC.

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Why does this matter to you, reader? Well let’s say your favorite blog suddenly goes dark because they can’t afford to the fees required to ALL the providers their users might possible utilize in order to be seen. Are you a freelancer? There goes the ability to get your Internet-based portfolio seen because your website suddenly won’t load for potential clients unless you shell out more money. Let’s say you are a single parent, trying to get a degree online so you can actually afford to feed your kids. Suddenly, that ability could be gone. There are a million other real-life scenarios that show just how detrimental this will be. But, you know, it’s gonna make some guy in a big office really rich and keep you really poor so you can never do something about it.

There are a lot of scenarios I could go into regarding net neutrality. But this is an entertainment journalism website, so let’s talk about how this affects that. It seems frivolous, right? Talking about how this hurts our ability to watch TV and movies online. And, yes, it is very much a “first world problem” but it’s also a very, very real one. We’re in the golden age of digital content. Anyone can film something, put it on YouTube for free, and watch it flourish. The result is a boom in entertainment media — unchecked and unhindered by rules and regulations and censorship. The 2012 webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries changed the way content creators could use YouTube and users could interact with it, earning the first Emmy ever for a web-based show. The quick, 4-minute segments utilizing just a single camera and Jane Austen source material was completely innovative and spawned an entire network and more of web-based shows on the YouTube platform.

One such show that owes its vitality to Lizzie Bennet is the rabidly popular 2015 webseries Carmilla, a modern updating of the 19th century novella of the same name. Now this one’s important because this is a show that would never see funding on network TV and, if it did, would likely tank into a non-renewal due to ratings. That’s not because it’s bad. In fact, it won a Canadian Screen Award, has 70 million views on YouTube, and its team produced a feature-length film after the series’ conclusion. But soccer moms complaining about Starbucks holiday cups aren’t exactly the target audience for a YA television series about lesbians and non-binary people. This was born to become digital content and had a niche in YouTube’s open channels. Carmilla essentially a ready audience waiting on the Internet — where society had forced virtually all members of the LGBTQ community to go in order to express themselves.

So what could the future of Carmilla look like in a non-net neutrality world? Maybe Verizon doesn’t like the series. Maybe there’s one or several complainers who decide they want to block access to Carmilla’s website for U.S. Internet users. Well they can’t stop the show’s YouTube stream, since Goolge owns that. But maybe they decide that the idea of streaming webseries on unrestricted websites needs to be discouraged. So they hike prices in order to discourage fans from viewing it and discourage creators from producing it, or series like it. Suddenly the Internet has been censored.

Another show with an even deeper entrenchment into LGBTQ culture is Sense8, a Netflix-owned action, sci-fi drama with a cult following from the same siblings that brought you The Matrix. This show has it all: the Gays™, queer people of color, transgender characters, polyamorous relationships, etc. You know, the stuff that our current VP absolutely loves.

So maybe in this brave new world, it is decided that this needs to shut down too. Maybe Netflix suddenly has to pay an arm and a leg to get accessed by users. That show already faced some difficulty in even getting a second season, only to be canceled before a third... until the outcry of fans earned a wrap-up of the story. That hard-earned victory for those individuals who see themselves in the characters on Sense8 will vanish too.

Over on Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale — the incredibly popular and well-received adaptation of the dystopian novel of the same name — gets some red tape because it too goes through a streaming service. And we can’t have a show about a totalitarian society under the yoke of the elite when that’s exactly what is being done, right? The Handmaid’s Tale has been an inflammatory piece of media, inspiring protesters to utilize its world and message as a way to put a concrete face on a looming and dark world. Perhaps providers don’t like the show’s iconic imagery and ability to exactly pinpoint the problems of society and how they escalate. So maybe they throttle service there too until users just stop trying to access it and creators just stop trying to get heard.

Okay, that’s an extreme example, but a valid one. Net neutrality could turn into the new book burning if people are not careful (and they won’t be). Information has changed and the ideas surrounding it have not. Just because it’s not bound in a book, doesn’t mean it’s not a piece of education. There’s a fundamental flaw in the way providers and the FCC define the Internet. It’s not just a playground that we should pay the toll for — it’s a school, a counselor’s room, and a safe space for expression too. And it’s one of the few places where it can be all those things and completely free at the same time. The Internet is a place where information is stored and shared, available to all. We’re not just talking about long-distance poker games and Facebook; we’re talking about data repositories, the Google Book project, academic blogging, literary and film content relevant to our culture, expression and places of discourse for those without a community of their own. Under this repeal, it will all come under the control and the domain of Internet providers with money signs in their eyes.

The fact of the matter is, Carmilla was offered freely. The teenager looking for validation in the media has a free three seasons of show to consume. And when Shaftesbury crowdsourced their film based on the series, all it required was a $15 donation that went right toward the production budget and not anyone’s pocket. Sense8 goes through a network that operates on a small monthly fee of about $9-11 in exchange for unlimited access to its plethora of original and licensed content. Hulu sits at just $7.99 a month for a subscription. Add in the brave new world of no net neutrality protecting those websites? You get higher prices and content that won’t be as freely available. Maybe it stops completely.

And then there are the public libraries operating on a barely-there budget that can’t afford to get good bandwidth for their digital collections. There’s the start-up that can’t get off the ground and suddenly the entire concept of the American Dream is gone (a.k.a. exposed as the elitist lie it is, but whatever). There’s a parent who can’t get an education so they can get a better job so they can take care of their kids.

Even my ability — or the ability of any of the other contributors on this site — to share thoughts and analysis on entertainment media will suddenly be challenged. The ability of private bloggers to continue getting their work seen, the ability of free writing on the Internet might go away entirely if sites like Just About Write can’t continue to flourish because our editor is suddenly being asked to fork out a lot more money just to be accessible to our loyal and fairly substantial following that was built over years of hard work.

Now, will all of this despair come to pass? Probably not. But we all also said Donald Trump probably wouldn’t be elected president and yet, here we are. The odds this time are lot less sure. The FCC is Republican-controlled, and that is a party with a history of transphobic, homophobic, and one-percent favoring legislation. Now that they intend to hand over the keys to information freedom, what’s to stop them from shutting down websites dedicated to the exact opposite of their belief systems? It’s a scary world of Dystopia Now. All we know for sure is that, if passed, this will change the way we interact with information and the Internet forever.

So, what can you do? Well, for starters, call your senator. This isn’t a congressional decision, though the FCC will have to answer to Congress after their vote. And for those of you who don’t have to deal with the reclusive coward that is Pat Toomey, you have a shot of actually getting in contact with your legislators! Don’t know who they are? Use this site to input your address, find out your rep’s contact information, and get cracking. Want to get even louder? Join the nationwide protest December 7th, using this to find your nearest protest.

And honestly? Just talk about it. Ignore that one great-aunt this holiday season who is always yelling at you for bringing up politics. Talk about this. Whether or not you care about some diverse TV shows getting knocked off the face of the Internet or some indie review sites losing their ability to express themselves, or the your neighbor who might not be able to afford the Internet and all the education it provides, you at least have to care about your own ability to get online without discrimination.

So do something about this. We didn’t take Trump seriously; take this seriously.

“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.” — Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale


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