Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Viral Freedom

Within 24 hours of the shooting of Oscar Grant – an unarmed, 22-year-old African American killed by a white BART police officer on New Year’s Day 2009 – Oakland rap artist Mistah F.A.B. recorded a poignant, heartfelt tribute titled, “My Life.”

F.A.B. recorded the song to “enlighten people to what’s going on.” But given the highly controversial, racially charged subject matter, he said, “I knew that the local radio station wasn’t gonna play it. I knew the clubs weren’t going to play it.”

“My Life” was too hot for mainstream outlets to touch. But thanks to the Internet, F.A.B. could bypass those venues and post a video of the song on YouTube. It quickly received more than 15,000 views. “My Life” was also noted on numerous sites around cyberspace, from San Francisco’s to Philadelphia’s to Helsinki’s The song appeared as a link more than 45,000 times between January and April 2009.

The exposure F.A.B got for his online-only video illustrates precisely what’s at stake in an ongoing fight between telecommunications companies and free speech advocates over keeping the Internet open and unrestricted. The conflict centers on the preservation of network neutrality – a cornerstone principle of consumer online rights that the Internet shouldn’t be a toll road, with cost-based barriers to entry. In other words, no Internet service provider should create a cyber-Fastrak lane for those who can pay premium prices for high-download speed and a slow-moving, congested lane for everyone else.

Without net neutrality, F.A.B would have found access to his Internet video at the mercy of the toll road. Such a prospect would have inhibited his efforts, as well as those of others, to raise awareness over an important community issue.

Indeed, immediately after the Grant killing, cell-phone video footage of the shooting went viral over cyberspace, raising questions about how BART authorities would handle the matter. Rappers Ise Lyfe, Beeda Weeda, and AP. 9 posted MP3s and videos expressing their own concerns about Grant’s death. Though not previously known for political statements, AP.9 and Beeda Weeda took on both police brutality and quality-of-life issues in their songs. Meanwhile, the video for Lyfe’s song, “Hard in the Paint” – shot on cell-phone and Flip video cameras inside BART, in tribute to the citizen journalists who recorded the incident – displayed a powerful, low-tech realism that was a far cry from the overly stylized look of most commercial music videos.

In surfacing issues of racism and accountability that would not have come out in mainstream media, these Internet videos highlight the importance of net neutrality not only to free expression but to community empowerment as well.

What’s the Beef?

For years, media advocates and Internet service providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have been locked in acrimonious debates over net neutrality. Both sides opine for “Internet freedom,” yet they hold widely differing views of what “freedom” means.

For neutrality advocates, Internet freedom refers to equal, affordable access for the public to the online applications and content of their choice. The ISPs, on the other hand, say a free Internet means a broadband and wireless industry unfettered by government oversight – and high-speed cyber lanes for those who can pay.


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