Music Groups Celebrate Net Neutrality Win

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 02.27.15 in News

The music will keep playing without commercial interruption. For now.

On Thursday, the U.S. telecom watchdog voted to adopt tougher rules that would treat broadband internet service as a public utility, like landline phones. The new regulations from the Federal Communications Commission aim to prevent broadband companies from blocking content or dividing the internet into fast and slow lanes based on which content providers are willing to pay. Those tenets are crucial to network neutrality, or the principle that all online data should be treated equally.

The change, approved 3-2 by a party-line vote, drew applause from parts of the music world.

A group of musicians including all the former members of R.E.M., Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin) and Aerosmith‘s Joe Perry signed a letter a few days ahead of the vote supporting the expected move. Reclassifying broadband as a so-called Title II service “is the best way to ensure that the Internet remains open for us to build businesses, reach audiences and earn a living in what is a challenging marketplace for creative content,” they wrote. “Without clear and enforceable rules that let us compete alongside the biggest companies, our ability to create and innovate will be threatened, if not extinguished.”

The U.S. organization representing independent record labels cheered the vote yesterday. Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), said the internet has allowed small and medium-sized businesses to compete on a more level playing field and praised the new rules for preempting broadband companies from acting as gatekeepers. “We thank the Commissioners for their vote today, and are glad to see music fans will continue to enjoy the freedom to choose their own preferred online destinations for consuming music legally,” he said in a statement.

Future of Music Coalition (FMC), a musicians’ advocacy group, also hailed the new regulations. “This historic day is a testament to what can be achieved when the creative community comes together with a diverse array of advocates and activists to stand up for free expression and entrepreneurship,” FMC CEO Casey Rae said in a statement.

The U.S. record industry organization that includes the three remaining major labels didn’t publish a statement on the vote. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has previously emphasized that the key priority regarding net neutrality should be distinguishing between “lawful and unlawful content.” Its website currently contains no mentions of the domestic net neutrality debate.

FCC chair Tom Wheeler signaled in January he was leaning toward the plan to regulate the internet as a utility, as President Obama proposed this past November. But the adoption of strict net neutrality rules was by no means certain. Though Wheeler was appointed by Obama, the FCC is an independent agency and isn’t required to follow the president’s instructions. Wheeler is a former cable industry lobbyist. And The Washington Post cited an unnamed FCC official last April as saying the new rules would grant the likes of Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable “the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers.”

Yesterday, Wheeler gave a full-throated defense of the new rules. “The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one — whether government or corporate — should control free and open access to the internet,” he said, as quoted by the Financial Times. “The internet is too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”

He added, “This is no more a plan to regulate the internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech.”

The rules still face stiff opposition.

Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner, referred to suggestions that broadband providers might abuse their dominant market position as “hysteria.” He said: “I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future Commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered.”

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, has slammed the plan as “Obamacare for the internet.”

Referring to the fact that the Title II designation dates to the Communications Act of 1934, John Engler, president of lobbying group Business Roundtable, told the FT, “America’s business leaders are frustrated and alarmed by the FCC’s decision to impose Depression-era regulations on the internet, a foundation of innovation and prosperity in the 21st century.”

Adopting the rules hasn’t ended the debate. According to Law360, the measure is “nearly certain to bring a court challenge.” The final rules haven’t yet been published, and they likely won’t go into force for “at least a couple of months,” according to The New York Times. New regulation was required after judges struck down the previous net neutrality regime in early 2014.

The role that activists can play in influencing public policy, highlighted by the push for net neutrality, isn’t finished, either. Also Thursday, more than a dozen University of Pennsylvania students interrupted a Penn board of trustees meeting with a message for its chairman, Comcast exec David Cohen. In a demonstration captured on video, they criticized Comcast’s advocacy against Title II net neutrality as well as Cohen’s failure to attend this meeting.

Levi Gikandi, who organized the protest, said in a statement, “With a net neutrality victory for the people imminent at the FCC, we came out today to send him a message to do the right thing — don’t block our internet.”