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OK Go on net neutrality: A lesson from the music industry

By Damian Kulash
Sunday, August 29, 2010; B02

On the Internet, when I send my ones and zeros somewhere, they shouldn't have to wait in line behind the ones and zeros of wealthier people or corporations. That's the way the Net was designed, and it's central to a concept called "net neutrality," which ensures that Internet service providers can't pick favorites.

Recently, though, big telecommunications companies have argued that their investment in the Net's infrastructure should allow them more control over how it's used. The concerned nerds of the world are up in arms, and there's been a long, loud public debate, during which the Federal Communications Commission appeared to develop a plan to preserve net neutrality.

The FCC's latest action on the question came partly in response to a federal appeals court ruling in April that appeared to limit the agency's authority over Internet service providers. In May, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued a plan to classify the Internet under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. In English, that means the agency would be legally recognizing a fact so obvious that I feel silly even typing it: We use the Internet to communicate. With that radical notion established, the FCC would have jurisdiction to protect the public interest on the Net, including enforcing neutrality. Since announcing its intent, though, the FCC hasn't followed through, and the corporations involved are trying to take the reins before the public servants do.

The first volley, earlier this month, was a proposal from Google and Verizon. The part they'd like us to notice, and the part I was thrilled by, is where they say there shouldn't be paid priority for the transmission of Internet content, meaning all legal data should be treated equally. Hear, hear, Googrizon! We, the stuff-making, freedom-loving, innovation-crazed citizens of the Internet, could not agree more.

Unfortunately, a couple of parts of the proposal radically contradict the noble principle outlined above.

First, Google and Verizon would like to exempt wireless Internet, which leads one to wonder just how dumb they think we are. Everyone's heard that the future of the Web is all wireless, but in truth, the present of the Web is all wireless. We are already deep in the iPad/BlackBerry/Android era, and there's no going back. So limiting equality and fair play to wired territory would be kind of like civil rights legislation that dealt with bus seating but exempted schools, the workplace and the voting booth.

Second, the companies slipped in a doozy of an idea for what seems like a hypothetical "fast lane" apart from the "public" Internet. Big bucks could gain access to this separate, specialized service, guaranteeing faster delivery of corporate ones and zeros. Essentially they are saying: Don't worry, there would be no "paid priority," except in the instances where you could pay for priority. Words fail to convey my incredulousness.

Let me tell you why I take this so seriously, and so personally. I've spent a decade working in the music industry, a business in which the big guys block out the rest of us. Creativity and innovation take a distant back seat to money, and everyone loses, even the big guys themselves. They have insulated themselves from change for so long, they've dug their own grave.

Both as a musician and as a music fan, I've always wanted to see the best and most exciting musical ideas rise to the top. But we all know the story of the music business: Success is bought more often than earned. Smart money looks for low risks, so the safest, blandest music attracts the most investment, and only the safest, blandest music makes it to the airwaves and the shelves at Wal-Mart. Creative, innovative artists toil in obscurity, the public is fed rubbish, and, for decades, the industry contentedly made its way to the bank.

Music is subjective, of course, so you don't have to agree with my assessment of what's innovative and what's trash. But business is less so, and the past decade of the music industry is as clear an example as you can find of what happens when the depth of pockets, not the quality of ideas, is the arbiter of success. It's been like a corporate version of the Three Stooges: absurd flailing, spectacular myopia and willful ignorance of reality. Now that the big record companies have made themselves obsolete, bands such as mine can make a better living without their help than we can with it.

The lesson is that insider's clubs don't nurture the best ideas, which is the whole point of markets: Competition is supposed to keep everyone on their toes. Sure, it's a drag that the radio plays such bad music, but it won't sink our economy. Can you imagine, though, what would happen if we let the same thing happen to ideas themselves?

The Internet is the purest marketplace for ideas that the world has ever seen, and the amazing power of such a level playing field has revolutionized everything. Google knows this better than anyone. It started in a garage and became an industry leader by having great ideas, not mountains of cash. And it's wonderful: The Internet works! It rewards innovators such as Google, and it relegates protectionist, defensive, idea-squashing fogies such as record companies to the dustbin of history.

Now that the Internet has been around long enough to have developed its own giants, though, we need to make sure they don't ruin what's great about the technology that made them. We need to make sure they don't crush the idea industry the way the music giants crushed the music industry. I hope Google keeps succeeding (seriously, I'm a stockholder), but it must be because of the power of its ideas, not its power to tilt the playing field.

The Google and Verizon statement, which was roundly criticized when it was released, is unlikely to be the only proposal we'll see from the big boys. A week and a half ago, AT&T, Verizon, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and a trade group called the National Cable & Telecommunications Association met for closed-door negotiations on managing online traffic that didn't include the FCC or the public.

The good news is that the Obama administration has repeatedly promised that it supports net neutrality. Right now the FCC can lastingly protect freedom and equality on the Net. To establish that authority, the agency needs the support of three of its five commissioners. Two commissioners, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, Democratic appointees, have loudly backed the effort. What we need is for the chairman to join them and follow through on the plans he laid out months ago. Mr. Genachowski, we, the citizens of the Internet, are with you.

Damian Kulash is the singer for the band OK Go.

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