Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
This week, Democratic senators banded together to force a floor vote on potentially reinstating 2015 rules that protected “net neutrality,” the principle that internet service providers must treat all data transmission equally, without discrimination based on source or content, for example.
While a final policy is not likely to be settled anytime soon, given the legislative wrangling and court challenges already announced by multiple state attorneys general, it could potentially impact artists and others in the art industry, especially those who create with or rely on data-heavy technology, and ultimately stifle innovation and creativity.
“The tech art community probably will be really negatively impacted by the elimination of net neutrality,” said Isabel Walcott Draves, a New York-based technology entrepreneur and founder of the city’s Creative Technology Week. “They’re much more likely than an average internet user to be posting content, especially data-rich content, to the internet.”
The 3-2 party-line vote to repeal net neutrality rules by the five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December opened the way for internet service providers, broadband companies such as Comcast or Spectrum, to charge websites for faster speeds, potentially slowing down others who cannot or do not pay extra. Repeal had been a stated priority for the FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon who was appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who argues deregulation of the internet will spur competition and encourage companies to make more infrastructure investments.
Lauren Boyle, cofounder of the artist collective DIS, said the potential lifting of net neutrality protections could throw a spanner in the works of dis.art, a video-based edutainment website due to launch in mid-January. Boyle described the site, which will initially be entirely freely available (premium subscriptions will be introduced down the road), as “an Art School you can stream.”
Boyle said delivering content quickly and regularly to users is already a major worry for start-ups such as hers.
“But to have to negotiate with ISPs to make sure that they actually see it?” she wondered. “What kind of notification, what kind of transparency are they going to be providing for smaller companies? Do you even have an option to buy into those faster lanes?”
She worried slowing down the loading of videos could prompt viewers to leave the site, and envisioned adjusting by changing how they deliver content, such as putting 15- to 45-second short mini-videos, often animations or scenes shot on the streets, at the end of the main video instead of at the beginning.
“Even if it’s just a little bit slower than other [websites], people bounce really fast,” Boyle said, although she noted she was optimistic that the repeal could be stopped through legal challenges.
For artists who create internet art that relies on specific technology, a change in the way the internet operates could potentially impact how or whether the work remains intact. Zachary Kaplan, executive director of Rhizome, a non-profit organization affiliate of New Museum dedicated to digital art and culture, gave the example of Summer (2013) by Olia Lialina, which resembles an animated GIF but is actually a collection of images of the artist swinging back and forth, with each frame hosted at a different artist’s website. To create the effect of swinging, the work redirects the viewer from one site to another.
“A work like that could be broken if one of those websites is hosted on a platform that is not prioritized” under a non-neutral regime, said Kaplan. Alternatively, he asked, if deep-pocketed tech companies such as Facebook become noticeably faster as they pay for prioritization, “Will artists choose to use Facebook as a platform for making art?”
Marc Gumpinger, a Munich-based artist, longtime technologist and founder of gaming company Scoreloop, encouraged artists to find art-based ways to respond. He said it was incumbent on artists to be creative, by, for example, finding ways to make simple internet art that doesn’t use much data, or finding ways to caricature these types of policy actions.
“You could spend a lot of time protesting,” he said. “I’m a bigger fan of being creative and turning that into something positive.” He added that the repeal of net neutrality regulations was part of what he saw as a larger pattern of the Trump administration doing something “that is to the benefit of a few, and a large number of people will suffer for it.”
But Draves said artists have historically been at the limits of using the internet’s capacity, including around data. By pushing the envelope to new realms of the technologically possible, their non-commercial projects can encourage corporations to come up with new services and innovations. She cited the example of Josh Harris, an early tech entrepreneur and founder of internet television station Pseudo.com, whose late 1990s project broadcasting his life 24 hours a day was a bandwidth-hogging experiment that presaged the now-common practice of livestreaming, and who was the subject of the documentary We Live in Public.
“Artists are able to be experimental,” Draves said. “They act essentially as the internet’s R&D department,” with respect to how the internet handles audio, video, design, and film.
“The experimental nature of what they do inherently means it’s not profitable yet,” she continued, noting that the policy stymies exactly the type of innovation that American corporations emphasize at a rhetorical level.
“It’s frustrating that while that the large corporations are at the same time saying they want this kind of experimental thinking and design thinking and creativity, that there’s something coming down the pike that might in fact create a chilling effect on that.”