As the name suggests, net neutrality is about a neutral, level playing field for internet users – the principle of non-tiered and non-discriminatory access. Once you’ve paid your cable or internet service provider (ISP), you can open a browser and (with the exception of paywall websites) access any and every website on the internet. Surfing is free, but net neutrality also means that ISPs are not allowed to prioritise specific websites or products by, for example, charging rival companies for faster loading speeds.
Since 2010, the internet in the United States has been regulated by the Open Internet Order: a set of rules that would, in theory if not always in practice, ensure net neutrality. This is likely to change as a consequence of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote on 14 December 2017 to overturn these rules. And while this decision is confined to the US, it will have global ramifications, primarily benefiting the cable companies and ISPs through which we gain internet access in the US.
While many in the arts and cultural community regard changes to net neutrality as an issue of interest and concern primarily for the museum technologists, it will be difficult for the wider community to side-step their consequences. The first effects will likely be premium charges for access to bandwidth-intensive websites and services, particularly streaming sites such as YouTube or Netflix. (Revenue-generating websites such as online shops may also incur a charge.) As arts organisations look to YouTube and Facebook Live to expand their audiences and connect to younger generations, this may present a roadblock to growth. Museums who are very active on YouTube and rely on the platform to host their rich media, such as the Field Museum in Chicago with its popular ‘Brain Scoop’ channel, or the Tate and its weekly artist-interview videos, might see a steep decline in views if charges are implemented, and a subsequent decline in referral traffic to their main websites. They may also see a cost for uploading content going forward.
As users, we may be required to add specific ‘packages’ to our internet service plans – the ‘Rush Hour Package’ to access the internet at peak times, the ‘Youtube Package’ or possibly even the ‘Museum Package’. The latter option is not particularly likely, as museums are not a lucrative market for the ISPs compared to Amazon and Facebook, and it will be difficult to segregate museums and visual arts sites as a content genre. But in the absence of clear intentions on the part of the cable and ISPs, anything is possible.
Another consequence of more concern is that tiered or restricted access, as well as the explicit blocking of specific website domains, images or content, will lead to the effective censorship of political or social-cause subject matter. This could be a very real problem for museums as they increasingly embrace social issues.
Proponents of the reversal of net neutrality cite the possibility of increased infrastructure investment. While there may be favourable consequences for the cultural community with the broader acceptance of pay-as-you-go content which could boost website revenue, how will open access and open content initiatives led by museums such as the Getty, the Met and Europeana fit into this picture?
The significant legal appeals mean it is unlikely that we will see an immediate effect of the FCC ruling. It is also possible that internet companies may simply absorb additional charges from the cable companies as the cost of doing business. But if the ruling is not overturned, tiered pricing will be inevitable in the US and may then set a precedent for the rest of the world.