It Might Cost A Lot More To Hear Hip-Hop On The Internet Without Net Neutrality

Today (May 18), the Federal Communications Commission enacted its latest round in the fight against net neutrality, a somewhat nebulous issue that hasn’t become as much of a household name as, say, Russiagate. However, outside of climate change, there may not be another issue that directly affects the daily lives of Americans as much as this one. In short, there is being waged a monopolizing war against access to the web, and the consumer is being pitted against Internet service providers (Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, etc.), with the federally operated FCC clearly taking the side of big business. In what is shaping up to be a battle based on wealth and censorship, much of the Internet as we know it – including music streaming platforms that allow us to hear music not played on the radio – is in jeopardy.

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For a crash course in the complexities of the issue, a 2014 article from Business Insider titled “EXPLAINED: ‘Net Neutrality’ For Dummies, How It Affects You, And Why It Might Cost You More” serves as an informative launching pad. “Net neutrality prevents Internet providers like Verizon and Comcast from dictating the kinds of content you’re able to access online. Instead, Internet providers have to treat all traffic sources equally. Net neutrality is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC,” it explains. As an example, reporter Alyson Shontell says “For example, Comcast would probably like to promote NBC’s content over ABC’s to its Internet subscribers. That’s because Comcast and NBC are affiliated.  But net neutrality prevents Comcast from being able to discriminate, and it must display both NBC’s and ABC’s content evenly as a result. That means no slower load time for ABC, and definitely no blocking of ABC altogether.”

She adds, “In short, net neutrality creates an even playing field among content providers — both large and small — to the web. And it’s great for consumers because they can access everything they want online for no extra charge.”

And that is precisely what is now at stake for consumers (and, as many would argue, democracy in the Information Age). On a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver updated a three-year-old episode on the same topic. In it, he discusses the Trump administration’s decision to roll back Obama-era net neutrality rules on equal access to the Internet, but first he offers up a refresher on what really is at play here. “Net neutrality is about more than just speed,” explained Oliver. “At its heart, it is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should not be able to engage in any sort of fuckery that limits or manipulates the choices you make online.” He also speaks to the opacity of the issue, saying “net neutrality is objectively boring.” But because more people know about it (thanks in part to the 2014 episode on the topic, which went viral) today, ISPs are having to become more clandestine in their workarounds. And that’s where the Trump administration comes in.

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Hugely important to any discussion about net neutrality are Titles I and II of the 1934 Communications Act. “Here is very broadly what happened,” Oliver says before launching into a brief yet informative history lesson that provides context for what is happening in the here and now. “Back in 2010, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) wrote net-neutrality laws concerning ISPs which, at the time, were regulated under the less strict Title I. And the companies found those net-neutrality rules inconvenient.” Verizon would eventually sue the FCC, with the presiding court ruling that, “if the FCC did want strong, enforceable net neutrality, their best option would be to reclassify ISPs under Title II, which allows for much stronger oversight.”

That brings us to today and Trump’s pick to head the FCC. Anti-regulation and pro-merger Ajit Pai is our new FCC chairman, and that presents a few troubling implications. A former lawyer for Verizon – one of those very ISPs fighting against a democratic information highway – Pai has, over the course of the last few months, provided some questionable solutions to the net neutrality issue, which Oliver goes into in further detail.

For the average Internet-using, music-loving American, today’s vote likely will have implications that will affect one’s ability to access streaming platforms, as they are the exact kind of high bandwidth-consuming services ISPs are looking to charge more for in a world without net neutrality. That would impact Hip-Hop more than any other genre, because, as studies have shown, it is the dominant form of music on the major streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Pandora and YouTube).

This may be a convenient coincidence, but it would be consistent with how Hip-Hop has been treated for years, when its fate was decided at the hands of the government and a select few gate-keeping corporations. Over the years, Hip-Hop has disproportionately been impacted when choices of what music to distribute were less democratic and held in the hands of few. In its infancy, many radio stations outright refused to play Hip-Hop, and even ran promo spots bragging about its exclusion. Similarly, MTV stayed away from the genre for years, and it took Run-D.M.C.’s genre-bending and ironically-titled “Rock Box” to break down the wall (a theme that they would symbolically re-visit in their “Walk This Way” video with Aerosmith. The government also often treated Hip-Hop as “different” than other music, with a long history of attempted censorship. Given the longstanding systemic biases against the culture, some would argue it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a world in which our access to Hip-Hop music is at least severely restrained by ISPs. As always, Hip-Hop will adapt and reinvent, but it’s imperative that the culture’s belief in unity, education, and political action serves as the fuel for a renewed offensive to fight the power.
In an editorial published today (May 18), the Nation offers up some advice as to what consumers and citizens can do to counteract the impending implementation of Pai’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” Plan. ” That plan makes it easier for monopoly ISPs to “create fast lanes and slow lanes online,” much like Business Insider explained back in 2014. It’s important to remember, however, that the reigns of a democracy remain (at least, to some degree) in the hands of voters and consumers, so there are some effective steps to be taken in turning the tide of the FCC’s anti-consumer stance.

As the Nation writes, sign our petition and send a comment to the FCC through our campaign launched with the Free Press Action Fund,, and others. Call your members of Congress and demand that they fight for net neutrality. We need everyone with any power on our side.

Combat misinformation about net neutrality spread by Chairman Pai and the telecommunications industry. Our friends at Free Press released a report this week refuting Chairman Pai’s claim that the Title II rules that guarantee net neutrality “stifled broadband investment.” You can read it here, then share on Facebook and Twitter. At The Nation, Victor Pickard recently wrote in more detail about the FCC’s “top-down corporate power grab.” You can read the article here, then share on Facebook and Twitter.

As reported by NPR, today’s 2-1 vote in favor of the Obama-era rollbacks landed on party lines, and will result in what Pai calls a return “to the Clinton-era light-touch framework” with what NPR calls the goal of “loosening the regulations on the industry.” Mignon Clyburn, the dissenting Democratic FCC commissioner, said Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom proposal is “no-touch” rather than “light-touch,” adding “if you unequivocally trust that your broadband provider will always put the public interest over their own interest or the interest of their stockholders, then the ‘Destroying Internet Freedom’ [proposal] is for you.”

There does remain a 90-day period between today’s vote and the drafting of a specific order and voting on whether to set it into law, the NPR report explains. During that time, the FCC will “collect comments from stakeholders and the general public,” which is what makes the Nation’s above advice so important. “During the 2015 effort to the write the net neutrality rules, more than 4 million comments poured into the agency, most of them in support of strict regulations. HBO late-night host John Oliver has driven much attention to the issue,” writes NPR.