Senator Al Franken (D-MN) spoke on the importance of net neutrality at this year's South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.
Open Internet: An Independent Producer's Last, Best Hope
Thank you, Todd, for that kind introduction. I'd like to thank Roland Swenson, Hugh Forrest, Shawn O'Keefe, and all the talented and dedicated organizers who have brought us here together for South by Southwest.
South by Southwest started as a showcase for this city's music scene, an innovative way for Austin's uniquely talented and wonderfully eclectic musicians to get the nation's attention.
It wasn't just about the party. It wasn't just about keeping Austin weird. It was about commercial viability, about finding a big enough audience so that these musicians could afford to keep making music.
It was a brilliant solution to a problem that most artists spend a lot of time wrestling with.
Some of you may be aware that I used to be in comedy. And like many of the bands and filmmakers and other creative professionals here in Austin this week, my partner Tom Davis and I had to wrestle with the challenge of getting ourselves heard and seen.
Francis Ford Coppola was asked about this problem in a recent interview. He said:
You have to remember that it's only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job.
Just like everyone else, Tom and I wanted our craft to be our job. And we didn't have an in with the duke of Weimar. Who, by the way, had a terrible sense of humor.
So we worked our hard and paid our dues, starting out at a place called the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis and touring anywhere they'd have us, hoping to find an audience and build a following so that we could do the thing we loved-and do it as a job instead of a hobby.
And in the back of my mind, and the back of Tom's mind, and the back of everyone's mind was the same thought: God, I hope I don't have to sell out.
Because there was another kind of patron on the scene-rich and powerful corporations with access to built-in audiences.
And just like the patronage of a king or a pope, support from these corporations-big record labels or studios or TV networks-came with strings attached. Your art had to be mainstream enough to appeal to-and generate profit from-a mainstream audience.
Coppola describes it this way:
The cinema language happened by experimentation-by people not knowing what to do. But unfortunately, after 15-20 years, it became a commercial industry. People made money in the cinema, and then they began to say to the pioneers, "Don't experiment. We want to make money. We don't want to take chances."
That's not to say there's never been good mainstream art. There has. And lots of it. Tom and I got really, really lucky to get hired by Lorne Michaels in July of 1975 to work on brand a new show, to be called "NBC Saturday Night," that would premier in October.
We were able to be ourselves, to do our thing and get paid. But there was a reason for that: We had Lorne fighting on our behalf with the network executives. Time after time, he would go to the mat for us, insulating us from the pressures of commercial viability.
And if you couldn't find a gig where you had a Lorne Michaels defending your creative integrity from the bosses, oftentimes the only way to get heard was to sell out. That wasn't us. And that's not the people who are here in Austin this week.
Fortunately, South by Southwest has grown. It's not just Austin's music scene's attempt to reach out and build a following without going through the corporate wringer. It's a celebration of all the ways in which independent creative minds have been able to find audiences.
And it's fitting that there's now a whole portion of the festival devoted to interactive, because the Internet has proven to be not only a hotbed for innovations that change our lives and an incredible engine of job creation, but also the ultimate self-distribution channel.
Thanks in no small part to the astonishing brilliance and creativity of the folks in this room, people the world over are now able to connect with each other, inspire each other, learn from each other, and entertain each other. And the best part is, no one has to sell out. Unless they want to. The Greatful Dead once told me, I can't remeber when exactly, that they'd been trying to sell out for 30 years. But the Dead were an exception that proved the rule.
But nowYou don't need a record deal to make a song and have people hear it. You don't need a major studio to make a film and have people see it. You don't need a fancy R&D job at a big corporation to come up with a great business model and launch it. You don't even need a high school diploma.
But I came here today to warn you that the party may almost be over. There is nothing more motivated than a corporation that thinks it's leaving money on the table. They are coming after the Internet, hoping to destroy the very thing that makes it such an important tool for independent artists and entrepreneurs-its freedom and openness.
I know that many of you have heard people talk about net neutrality before. You might have heard me say that it's the First Amendment issue of our time. And it is. And you might already be on board with our fight to save it.
But I want to take just a moment to explain it, because part of the strategy being used by people who want to destroy net neutrality is to confuse Americans about what the term even means.
Net neutrality means that content-a web page, an email, a download-moves over the Internet freely, and it moves at the same speed no matter what it is or who owns it.
So an email from President Obama and an email from your Tea Partier uncle come in at the same speed. You can buy a song from an indie band just as quickly as you can buy a song from a band on a major label. And if you start a website for your small business, your customers can have their orders processed just as easily with you as they could if they were buying from a multi-national conglomerate.
We take this basic fairness-this equality, this, shall we say, neutrality-for granted, because that's how it's always been. The Internet is democratic. Not capital-D Democratic, although, for that annoying uncle of yours who still insists that government has never created a job, the Internet was developed by the government at public expense.
No, what I mean is that the Internet is small-d democratic. Everyone has the same say. If you want to be heard above other people-if you want your argument to prevail, or your song to be popular, or your product to sell-the only way to do it is to have a better argument, or a catchier song, or a more useful product.
I think this is a good thing. I think most people think this is a good thing. And that's why your Tea Partier uncle might hear that Al Franken is fighting for net neutrality and say something like, "Leave the Internet alone!"
And that's exactly what I want. We have net neutrality right now. And we don't want to lose it. That's all. The fight for net neutrality isn't about improving the Internet. It's not about changing the Internet at all. It's about ensuring that it stays just the way it is.
It's the big corporations who now own the physical infrastructure that makes the Internet work, the pipes through which content is distributed-the tubes, if you will-who want to change the Internet by ending net neutrality.
Now, let me say something about big corporations. They're not inherently evil. Not at all. I notice that some of them have even sponsored this year's South by Southwest, which is very hip of them.
But corporations have a contractual duty-a legal obligation to their shareholders-to make as much money as they can.
And the big telecom companies make lots and lots of money off their ownership of the Internet-but they've figured out a way to make more.
It's called "paid prioritization." Telecom companies want to create a high-speed lane for corporations that can pay for it. As the Chief Technology Officer for BellSouth pointed out, "I can buy a coach standby ticket or a first class ticket...I can get two-day air or six-day ground."
This would make these corporations gatekeepers of the Internet, with the power to decide what content can get to its intended audience in the high-speed lane and what content gets stuck in traffic, depending on what makes the most money for their shareholders.
For American consumers, this would of course be bad news.
We'll have a lot fewer viewpoints represented online-not just creative viewpoints, but maybe even ideological viewpoints. Do you think Comcast would refrain from making it harder for people to watch this speech online if they could do so legally?
And even if the telecoms can't force Americans to like their preferred content, they could make it very difficult-and very expensive-for Americans to access the content they do prefer.
Maybe you don't care for whatever Verizon is peddling on its V-Cast. So you go to load up a YouTube video of something else. But if Verizon selectively throttles bandwidth, as we've seen reports indicating they might, that video might load slower and at a lower resolution. How long are you going to put up with that before you turn back to the pristine quality and speedy downloads you can still have through V-Cast?
Maybe you don't want to watch the NBC/Universal content Comcast is offering through its streaming service. The movie you want to see is on Netflix's instant streaming platform. But now Comcast wants to impose a new fee on Netflix, making it more expensive for them to offer competition to Comcast's streaming service. Obviously, this cost could be passed on to you in the form of higher prices on Netflix subscriptions. But the real endgame for Comcast is to put Netflix out of business entirely, leaving you with no choice except Comcast's programming.
Meanwhile, now that Comcast has bought NBC, it won't be long before Verizon or AT&T starts thinking about buying ABC or Direct TV, creating a few enormous media conglomerates with bigger and bigger footprints over the delivery of content. If they're able to implement what they call "managed services," you might have to buy both broadband access and a cable package to get either.
And just as you pay extra to get HBO or Showtime on your cable package, we've seen reports that telecom companies might consider dividing the Internet into tiers the same way-you'd pay a base fee for a few sites, and more if you want to be able to get to others.
If these companies aren't already doing these things now, rest assured that this is their plan. In the end, the American people will end up paying a lot more money for worse service and less content. They'll hear from a lot fewer viewpoints. They'll have a lot less freedom to choose what they want to see and hear and do online.
All of this is bad for consumers. But it would be an outright disaster for the independent creative community. Corporations want control over distribution systems so they can ensure that content that makes them a profit has an easier time finding an audience than content that doesn't. That's been true throughout history.
Here's an example I saw first-hand.
We used to have rules to prevent this kind of conflict of interest in television. They were called "Fin-Syn," or "Financial Interest in Syndication" rules, and they prevented corporations that owned the pipelines over which content was distributed on TV-broadcast networks-from owning that content.
But then the networks asked Congress to let those rules expire. Network executives swore under oath that they wouldn't give their own programming preferred access to the airwaves.
I was working at NBC back then, and I didn't buy that line one bit. But Congress did. And when those rules were allowed to expire, guess what happened. Within a couple of years, NBC was the largest supplier of its own prime-time programming. Following suit, Disney bought ABC. Viacom, the parent company of Paramount, bought CBS. And then NBC merged with Universal.
Today, if you're an independent producer, you can make a great show. But you can't get it on the air-you cannot access the most effective distribution system-unless you give the network a huge piece of the show. The price for getting to air is creative control and a hefty chunk of the valuable syndication rights.
Or look at the history of independent film. Anyone can make a movie. The technology exists. But in the early days of film, a few powerful studios developed a monopoly over the theater industry-the main distribution system.
Independent filmmakers have had to find other ways to get their work seen. From drive-in theaters to VCRs, cable television to video stores, each new distribution system has offered independents a new opportunity to reach an audience without having to sell out and make the kind of movies that the big studios wanted.
And each has died off, either because they couldn't compete with the corporate-controlled distribution channels-or because they were co-opted. HBO was once a home for all kinds of weird indie films-until Time Warner up and bought it.
The Internet has proven more effective and more durable than any other independent distribution channel.
Examples are all around us, especially this week.
When the relationship between the Writer's Guild and television studios deteriorated so badly in 2007 and 2008 that the Guild-of which I am a member-went on strike, Joss Whedon had a dilemma. He didn't want to sit on his hands-but he didn't want to cross the picket line.
So, when he created Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, he released it for free on the Internet. TIME magazine would later call it not just one of the best TV shows, but one of the best inventions of the year, writing:
It's hard to imagine a studio green-lighting an idea as weird and ostensibly uncommercial as a 43-min., three-part online super-villain musical.
And yet, it was a huge hit. Millions of people downloaded the episodes, and more have subsequently purchased it on DVD. Whedon made back his investment. The cast and crew, who had taken on the project without compensation, got paid. The studios did not.
Meanwhile, as Clear Channel consolidates its hold on the radio, more and more bands are using the Internet to launch their careers outside of the corporate-controlled distribution networks.
Now, I want to be clear about something. Often, when people talk about using the Internet as a distribution network, especially for music, they mean "for free." And that's not necessarily what I'm talking about.
If you want people to listen to your music or watch your movie for free, fine. But I support efforts to crack down on piracy for the same reason I support net neutrality: I want artists to be able to get paid for their work-artists, and sound engineers, and gaffers, and camera operators, and craft services people, all of whose livelihoods are threatened by piracy.
But I also want artists to be able to get paid for their work while being able to do the work that they want to do, not what a corporation wants them to do. And the Internet can make that possible.
It's not just YouTube. Sites like Bandcamp and Kickstarter have made it possible for audiences not only to discover new independent acts, but to help those artists make and distribute music.
Last week, the Decemberists released a letter in which they described how they went, in their words, "went from being a small local band in Portland to creating a successful small business that employs over a dozen people and allows us to tour and sell records throughout the world."
Our ability to build a fan base at home and abroad was and still is dependent to a large degree on the Internet and the way it has changed how musicians connect to their listeners. We depend on everything from our own online store to streaming sites like Pandora and Rhapsody to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Some of these help us reach people, some help us sell our product and generate revenue for our employees and ourselves. These outlets have become absolutely essential to us, and practically all musicians working today.
And then we come to you guys-the tech entrepreneurs.
The open Internet allows the creative artists here in Austin this week to be more entrepreneurial. And it allows the entrepreneurs in this room to be more creative-and more successful.
More corporate control of the Internet would make it harder for small online businesses to compete, as anyone who's had to wrestle with Apple over an app can attest.
But it would also undermine the spirit that has made this sector so valuable, not only to the entrepreneurs who have succeeded in it, but to the American economy.
We are all familiar with the stories of YouTube, launched above a little pizzeria in San Mateo, and Twitter, dreamed up during a brainstorming session at a small podcast company.
And represented here in Austin are hundreds, thousands of stories just like those, stories of people who build prototypes in garages and drop out of college to take a chance on their own ambition, entrepreneurs who come from nowhere to change people's lives everywhere.
You guys know these stories. You are these stories. And you know that these wouldn't be possible if you couldn't rely on the Internet as a free and open distribution platform.
But here's what you may not realize. You aren't just tech innovators. You're job creators. And with our economy just beginning to recover from a debilitating recession, the industries of the 20th century struggling to survive, and our nation increasingly focused on the enormous challenge of remaining competitive in the 21st century global economy, you have enormous credibility right now.
I haven't been in Washington that long, but I've heard enough from both parties to know that people there are desperate to hear from successful entrepreneurs like you. Job creators get their phone calls returned. Do not underestimate how much political power you have.
And just as the Internet has proven to be the last, best independent distribution system, you just might be our last, best hope for saving it.
But we don't have much time. Net neutrality is in trouble.
Unfortunately, one thing the big corporations have that we don't is the ability to purchase favorable political outcomes.
All industries have lobbyists-but the big telecoms have lots of them, and good ones, too. On top of that, last year's Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns without disclosing any of it.
This means that every policymaker in Washington is hearing much more from the anti-net neutrality corporate side than they are from the side without the lobbyists. Everyone has more to fear from the corporations with unlimited slush funds than they do from our side.
The end of net neutrality would benefit no one but these corporate giants. And yet, true to form, telecom lobbyists and their conservative allies in Congress are taking up their cause, persuading your Tea Partier uncle and far too many other Americans by using a rhetorical technique I call "making stuff up."
They'll tell you that putting rules in place to preserve net neutrality as it exists today amounts to a "government takeover" of the Internet, a talking point that deserves a place alongside "death panels" and "Obama's a Muslim" in the pantheon of lies that aren't just baldly false, but completely ridiculous.
The word "takeover" implies that we want to change the Internet. We don't. And it's not the government trying to exert more control over the Internet, it's big corporations who want to put tollbooths on the information superhighway.
But that isn't stopping big corporations from trying to undermine net neutrality at every turn.
Earlier this year, the FCC approved new rules that, while they didn't go nearly as far as I think they need to in order to keep the Internet fully free, at least laid some foundation for preserving the principles of net neutrality as it exists today.
But the House of Representatives voted to deny the agency the funding it would need to implement its order. And they plan to use a Congressional Review Act resolution to reverse it entirely, giving the telecoms an explicit permission slip to move ahead with paid prioritization and any other scheme they can concoct.
Meanwhile, I've introduced legislation with Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington that would codify principles of net neutrality into law.
And I'm introducing a new bill that would call violations of net neutrality out for what they are-anti-competitive actions by powerful media conglomerates that represent violations of our anti-trust laws. We don't allow big corporations to use their size to bully their competition, and my bill would make it clear that this applies to telecoms that use their power to control the Internet.
These fights are coming to the Senate. And I'm going to be on my colleagues every day, urging them not to cave in to the telecom lobbyists.
But there are more of those lobbyists than there are of me. And with Citizens United in place, the more powerful these corporations are allowed to get-and the more they profit from what they're trying to do-the more they'll spend targeting elected officials who stand up to them, and the harder it will be to move the needle back in the other direction.
If we're going to win these legislative fights, we need to engage more voices in the debate-people who would be hurt if net neutrality became a thing of the past.
Of course, that includes artists and entrepreneurs like you. But it also includes the American people as a whole. Most of them just don't know that the Internet they rely on could cease to exist as they know it. They hear a lot of talk about how innovative and exciting these corporations' plans are-and they don't realize that those plans would raise their rates, make it harder to access their favorite content online, and kill off creative and ideological viewpoints.
That's why our side needs to do a better job of communicating with people outside of the corporate-controlled distribution systems. Which, as it so happens, is what you all think about for a living.
And so it's time for us to use the Internet to save the Internet. One of the great things about the tech sector is how you use the technology you pioneer not only to build businesses, but to strengthen communities.
You have customers, or users, or members who look to you for leadership. They represent a tremendous source of social and political capital. And you're the only ones who can tap into that to help build the movement we'll need to win this fight.
Twenty years ago, South by Southwest was a music festival. Today, it's a hotbed of creative entrepreneurship and a celebration of independent art and technological innovation.
What will it be twenty years from now? Will independent artists still matter? Or will so many Americans have no choice but to consume the content sponsored by corporations that only the corporate content can thrive? Will individual entrepreneurs still matter? Or will a few conglomerates have so much control over the Internet that only the innovations they can profit from will stand a chance of making it on the open market?
When we gather at South by Southwest 2031, will we be hearing new music from independent creative minds and talking about the next exciting way the Internet will help to connect us? Or will we be stuck listening to the Black Eyed Peas and reminiscing about the days before you had to sell out to make it?
Let's not sell out. And let's not let the government sell us out. Let's fight for net neutrality. Let's keep Austin weird. Let's keep the Internet weird. Let's keep the Internet free.