Washington, DC

US groups urge fast broadband for all as online plans threaten access to art

Proposed “two-tier” internet could leave artists with inadequate technology, while wealthy content providers get super-fast connections

Washington, DC

The non-profit lobbying organisation Americans for the Arts has joined a number of other US cultural organisations that are urging the Federal Communications Commission to protect the democratic nature of the internet and preserve what has been dubbed “net neutrality”. The commission is considering a proposal that would allow internet service providers to sell faster connections to powerful content-based companies such as Netflix, while relegating others to a broadband “slow lane”. The effect of this would be to create a two-tiered internet. Instead, critics argue, all data should continue to be treated equally.

“This is something that everyone should be concerned about,” says Kate McClanahan, Americans for the Arts’ director of federal affairs, “because it creates a stifling force on sharing new ideas and new, innovative platforms.” In a letter to the commission in July, the organisation wrote that “the true engine of growth of the internet has been its open architecture, which provides a platform for free expression and entrepreneurship regardless of a user’s economic clout… artists from all backgrounds are able to take part. In an era of consolidated corporate media, it is crucial that our creative communities are not disadvantaged.”

The issue is of special concern to arts communities because “the internet is fundamentally a tool of creativity and free speech”, says Virginia Rutledge, an arts lawyer.

The proposal has already received more than one million responses—the most in the commission’s history—since the issue was opened up to public debate in May. Comments can be submitted until 15 September and the commission expects to make a decision by the end of the year. But the art world has remained relatively quiet on the subject. “Artists are pretty quick to respond to what they see as censorship,” says the artist and writer Joy Garnett. “But for some reason, net neutrality isn’t as sexy.”

If the commission approves the change, critics predict real disadvantages for the arts online, such as delayed video streaming and page loading, as well as lower-definition images. “What if only those who can ‘pay to view’ will be able to experience art as it is meant to be experienced?” Garnett asks.

Some artists, particularly those who use the internet as their medium, have begun to respond to “the contested condition of openness online”, says Lauren Cornell, a curator at the New Museum in New York. Takeshi Murata, Michael Bell-Smith and Cory Arcangel are among them, Cornell says, but the issue “is really applicable to all artists working with digital media in the 21st century”.

Some museums are also getting involved. Nancy Proctor, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s deputy director for digital experience, has lobbied museum directors to sign petitions and picket the commission in Washington, DC. “I’m doing as much as possible to avoid a future without net neutrality, because it’s hard to know how our museum, or any others, would cope,” she says. But many have yet to join the debate. “It may be that the biggest danger here is that we don’t know what we’re going to lose,” Rutledge says.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 260 September 2014