Democratic senator Al Franken has issued a rallying cry to “innovators and entrepreneurs” at SXSW to fight back against Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) and other companies lobbying to pave the way for a two-speed internet.
The principle of net neutrality, under which all content is delivered equally to internet users’ homes, is “in big trouble”, Franken warned in a passionate rallying cry at the conference on Monday.
Franken’s address was always going to be a preach to the converted – SXSW is the spiritual home for small, independent media and technology firms – but he warned that unless the 200,000 attendees “use the internet to save the internet”, then big telecoms firms will muscle through plans for a two-tier net.
“The one thing that big corporations have that we don’t is the ability to purchase favourable political outcomes,” he said.
“Big corporations like the telecoms firms have lots of lobbyists – and good ones too. Every policy-maker in Washington is hearing much more from the anti-net neutrality side than the side without lobbyists. But everyone has more to fear from these big corporations than from us. [Their proposals] would benefit no one but them.”
In the US, where the net neutrality debate rages on despite a conciliatory bill by the Federal Communications Commission in December, telecoms giant Verizon is fighting the rules in a bid to allow internet providers to choose which content they can charge for. Net neutrality advocates fear that internet providers, most pertinently Comcast which controls a large stake in both TV and internet provision, could downgrade rivals’ content and boost delivery of their own.
“[On today's internet] you don’t need a record deal to make a song and have people hear it, or a major film studio for people to see your film, or a fancy R&D job. But the party may almost be over,” Franken said.
“There is nothing more motivated than a corporation that thinks it is leaving money on the table. They are coming on the internet and wanting to destroy its freedom and openness. All of this is bad for consumers but an outright disaster for the independent creative community.”
Big corporations like Verizon and Comcast are not “inherently evil,” he added, but their duty to shareholders “to make as much money as they can” could change the internet for every American as they know it.
Comcast was last month accused of effectively erecting a tollbooth that puts competitive video streaming service, namely Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX), at a competitive disadvantage. Franken on Monday accused Comcast of thinly disguising its “real endgame,” which he argued was “to put Netflix out of business”.
He added: “Today SXSW is a hotbed of creative entrepreneurship and innovation.
“But what will it be 20 years from now? Will Americans have no choice but to consumer corporate content? Will entrepreneurs still matter? Or will conglomerates have so much control that only the innovations that they profit from will make it onto the market.
“Let’s not sell out. 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.”
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.