The team at Thizzler on the Roof, an Oakland-based hip hop media company that specializes in promoting the Bay Area rap scene. Small creative organizations like this one could face tough choices if the Net Neutrality rules are repealed. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
It’s been a good year for Thizzler on the Roof, a Bay Area hip-hop media company based in Oakland. The company's YouTube channel, in particular, garnered 170 million views since the start of 2017.
"We’ve gone pretty big over the last couple of years," says Thizzler founder Matt Werner. "We’re discovering new artists, getting their music videos and graphics, and then putting them out into the world to make them get seen and heard."
But if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moves forward with a vote on Thursday on whether to dissolve net neutrality rules, creative organizations like Thizzler could find themselves in a tough spot.
The FCC passed net neutrality rules in 2015 to create a more level playing field for all forms of online content. Should the commission guts those rules, large internet providers like Comcast or Verizon could block or slow down content from specific websites -- unless those websites pay for it.
"The landscape could change to the point where we may have to pay to get our content out there at the speeds that our audience wants," Werner says. "And that would really suck."
Thizzler is just one of many Bay Area artists and creative organizations whose online work might be impacted should the FCC vote to end net neutrality.
Josh Healey, writer and producer of The North Pole, an online comedy series about gentrification set in Oakland, says his audience mostly finds the series through Facebook and YouTube. The North Pole has garnered around 75,000 views via those two platforms since its release in September. Healey says the online reach has led to public screenings in places like Oklahoma and Florida.
"That's that sort of thing that can only happen if people know about the content in the first place," Healey says.
Artists who continue to share their work through wealthy, ubiquitous sites like YouTube and Facebook may not feel the impact of changes to the rules, says Maneesh Agrawala, director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford University. "Those larger sites are likely to provide good access to anyone who wants to come and visit them," Agrawala says.
Agrawala says it’s creatives who want to set up their own platforms who might face lower quality streaming for their content -- or be shut out altogether. That’s because they may not have the bucks to compete with the big players for bandwidth.
"It feels like a closed playing field, where newcomers can't come and participate," Agrawala says.
Celebrities, tech industry leaders and hundreds of thousands of regular citizens have been lobbying Congress to cancel Thursday’s vote.
But a few observers believe an end to net neutrality may actually benefit up-and-coming artists.
Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says if content creators share the cost of new internet infrastructure with service providers, more people will be able to afford faster internet connections.
"That would be of benefit to the extent that it enables artists to find a broader audience," Sanchez says.
But for The North Pole’s Josh Healey, "pay-for-play" isn’t an option for his shoestring operation.
"We'll have to find a new way to circumvent the powers that be," Healey says.
Healey isn’t yet sure what that might look like. But he says it could involve partnering with other like-minded creatives to set up independent networks.
That way, fans can continue to enjoy content they love -- without service interruptions.
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