Can this mockumentary make the public care about Net Neutrality?

September 9, 2013
(The Internet Must Go)
No, the mockumentary wasn't really leaked. (The Internet Must Go)

Today, a coalition of over a dozen organizations, including Free Press, Public Knowledge, ColorOfChange, Center for Media Justice, and Future of Music Coalition are joining to launch a "leaked" mockumentary about Net Neutrality to coincide with the opening arguments in Verizon v. F.C.C called "The Internet Must Go." Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all online traffic equally -- so they shouldn't be allowed to discriminate between different types of applications or content by either favoring or throttling certain online services.

The full film is available to watch now, and the trailer is embedded below:

The Switch spoke with the award-winning filmmaker behind the film, Gena Konstantinakos on Sunday. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Andrea Peterson: Tell me about the mockumentary.

Gena Konstantinakos: The mockumentary is a short film that tells the story of John Wooley who is a market researcher who has been dispatched to help the big Internet service providers sell their vision of a faster, cleaner Internet. He embarks on this journey earnestly, though misguidedly, believing that he's doing something great, and he's finally doing an important job. Over the course of his journey he meets with some really brilliant people, and one by one they help him to understand why his mission is really pretty misguided.

Then he ventures to North Carolina where interacts with people who live in communities that are stifled by a lack of broadband altogether and who have attempted to build community broadband. But as you know, North Carolina now has barriers to building community broadband. So he interacts with those people, and that's ultimately where he has a change of heart. It's 29 minutes and 59 seconds, which is what I hope is a very clickable length, and we're releasing it for free on the Internet on Monday to coincide with the oral arguments in Verizon v. F.C.C.

Who is in the film and why did they choose to participate?

I sought out people whose writing and talks on [Net Neutrality] I found compelling and helpful to my understanding of these issues. And I think why people were willing to take the risk to come on board was that people are in agreement that there needs to be mass attention on this issue and the goal from my perspective was to create a film that was going to make this issue easier to digest, and funny, and give it a narrative arc to make it a lot easier to tune into. I think that's why people were willing to join me in it: We were all in agreement that the more people we can reach on this issue, the more attention we can drive toward it, and the more awareness we can raise, the better off we'll be as far as the open Internet is concerned. Really everyone I interviewed, I found to be so helpful.

John Wooley starts off on his mission doing a bunch of research online and being very confused by about what all this means. And he seeks out some of the experts on the issue. He speaks with Rashad Robinson, who is the executive director of ColorOfChange -- as you know, that organization does a lot of work on Net Neutrality issues. Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of Reddit, and he's very clear that the internet as a meritocracy, it's a place where your link is as good as my link and just based on merit it can rise to the top. He's very open that without an open Internet, he could never have started Reddit.

Larry Lessig is an amazing, luminary expert on this issue. He speaks really clearly about the importance of the Internet as infrastructure, both in terms of the importance of content that's on the pipes being open, and the pipes being accessible -- widely accessible with robust infrastructure everywhere being the idea, and that the providers should not really be able to manipulate what flows through those pipes and what speed. Susan Crawford is also in the film and is brilliant.

John Hodgman was hugely helpful. When I was originally brainstorming the right way to tell this story, I saw a mock face-off at the Ford Foundation between Damian Kulash of OK Go and John Hodgman. That video clip is actually in the film as one of the early things John Wooley finds in his research. Hodgman was really helpful as giving us a through-line and also revealing at the end in that his real life self supports the open Internet. It gave us another way to frame the narrative and John Wooley's arc.

What is your personal relationship with the Net Neutrality fight, your understanding of the issue, and why did you became involved?

As a storyteller whose background is primarily in TV and mainstream media, I'm personally really excited about the open Internet. The fact that anyone can take a piece of content, put it up on the open Internet, and simply based on people's interest in it can reach millions of people -- that's an incredible thing.

We take for granted that the openIinternet is here to stay, but that isn't necessarily the case. There are four major ISPs in the U.S. that function with power that is a lot like monopoly power. Verizon and AT&T have wireless, Time Warner and Comcast have wired. They don't really have any competition and there's not really anything preventing them from doing whatever they want as far as what's going through their pipes. That's a really disturbing concept to me.

When I first started paying attention to this issue and feeling really disturbed by it, I started wondering why everyone I knew wasn't also feeling really disturbed by that -- especially friends I knew in media who are increasingly frustrated with traditional media and increasingly optimistic and hopeful about the Internet. The more I read about it, the more I realized the reason more people aren't paying attention is it can be incredibly boring to read about this. It very quickly becomes confusing if you don't have a background in tech policy. It can get really wonky, really quickly. And there's no narrative arc really to this issue, it doesn't feel emotional, it certainly isn't very funny -- so the stakes feel really abstract, and it can quickly feel hard to understand.

But the stakes really couldn't be higher, and this is something I feel we really all do need to be paying attention to. So the goal in making the film was to tell the story in this format that was going to make it easier to digest.

What's at stake in Monday's oral arguments?

Basically to summarize, Verizon is suing the FCC to have the open Internet rules that are currently in place thrown out. It seems as though people feel that the rules are relatively likely to be thrown out, that Verizon may be successful in this, in which case there will be no rules in place protecting the open Internet. One thing to say about the rules is that they leave wireless unprotected altogether, which is a huge problem with those rules so even if the rules are kept they need to be improved upon.

One thing that I'm personally excited about in terms of what this moment represents, is that for a while it's been hard to rally people around a specific moment in all of this. Susan Crawford estimates that a decision won't until January or February. So my personal hope is that between the oral arguments which will happen tomorrow and the decision we can raise a lot of awareness about what these rules are about, what it means if these rules are thrown out, what Net Neutrality even is, why it's important to us, make sure congress knows this is something the public really cares about, not just people who care about technology, not just people in the start up world, but everybody.

Whether you're an entrepreneur, or an organizer, or a storyteller, or a band who wants to get your music out there -- anyone who uses the Internet, loves the Internet, and relies on it as infrastructure for the work that they do should really be paying attention to this case. I'd also really point you to Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge or Susan Crawford for even more details as to how all of that is likely to unfold.

ISPs argue that they provide the service and they're a private business so they should have control over how they deploy that service. What do you think about that?

I think that if we were living in a world where they had legitimate competition, and the public had options like, "Oh, this provider wants to handle it this way, I'll  just go over here to this provider here who wants to treat the Internet openly" that would feel more legitimate to me.

Tim Wu offers this really helpful metaphor in my interview with him: Let's say you built the Brooklyn Bridge with help from the government, and that bridge decides, "we're going to let Pizza Hut cross the bridge and not going to let Little Caesar's cross the bridge." Picking winners and losers in that way when, in fact, it's supposed to be infrastructure is a really big problem.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · September 9, 2013