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Net Neutrality Flickr/Credo Action

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Concerns about net neutrality grow among YouTubers, Twitch personalities (update)

‘The internet is the greatest good’

Any small business owner will preach about the importance of foot traffic to achieving sales success.

Access to small businesses is what helps drive traffic. Most entrepreneurs will tell anyone who listens that if people can’t easily access a shop or are diverted away from it to a bigger chain store, independent, small business is doomed.

Think of it this way: If a tollbooth is suddenly added that prevents people from driving down Main Street, where your business is situated, you’re going to lose a large percentage of customers who would have easily found you before.

This is how Omeed Dariani, founder and CEO of Online Performers Group, a company that represents professional streaming talent, explains what YouTube and Twitch streamers could face if net neutrality — guided by 2015’s new Open Internet Order, which ensures that internet service providers can’t monetize or block content online — is repealed. On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on whether to overturn laws put in place during President Obama’s administration that labeled the internet as a public utility, regulating it for people around the country.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Speaks At American Enterprise Institute Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, announced in late November that the agency was organizing a vote on whether to repeal the Open Internet Order, potentially giving internet service providers the ability to control traffic for sites by introducing fast lanes, which would allow companies to pay an additional fee to deliver content far quicker to customers, Dariani was livid.

“It’s a threat,” Dariani told Polygon of the move to end net neutrality. “I view it as an existential threat to [streamers’] livelihoods.”

For someone who spent the last four years as an official Twitch partner and managing the careers of others who used the platform to stream, Dariani feels overwhelmed by the idea that the internet would no longer be accessible to everyone. This isn’t the first time he has spoken out about FCC’s attempt to repeal net neutrality. Dariani has been actively addressing the situation and bringing attention to the problem on Twitter since July, offering links for his followers to help educate people about the subject.

But Pai is outspoken about ending net neutrality. Some like-minded critics of net neutrality, including AT&T lobbyist Bob Quinn, have said there were no issues before the FCC strengthened its stance that the internet remain open in 2015. Quinn, who uses 2015 as the moment things went south, wrote that regulations in Europe that has existed since 2003 has created a better internet for comparison, adding people “don’t have to look any farther than the differences in regulatory approach which existed in Europe since 2003.”

Quinn added that internet service providers like AT&T weren’t looking to derail the core ideal of net neutrality, writing that AT&T “will not block websites, we will not throttle or degrade internet traffic based on content, and we will not unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic (all consistent with the rules that were adopted — and that we supported — in 2010, and the rules in place today).”

But various ISPs, including Comcast and AT&T, have made multiple attempts over the years to introduce the exact things the Open Internet Order was designed to protect consumers from: blocking websites, throttling connection speeds and locking some content behind an added paywall. In 2007, Comcast reportedly attempted to throttle internet traffic based on user. Between 2011 and 2014, AT&T reportedly imposed secret data caps on customers.

Throttling and monetizing internet content has a particular impact as more people find full-time work online. This has never been truer for Twitch streamers and YouTube personalities, who spend hours continuously playing video games or uploading content, relying on partnership affiliations and revenue made through AdSense as a way to pay the bills.

Streamers gotta stream

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of broadcasters streaming monthly on Twitch grew from 1.7 million broadcasters per month on average to 2.2 unique streamers in 2016. YouTube doesn’t disclose how many creators are uploading videos per month, or even per year, but notes that “the number of channels earning six figures per year on YouTube is up 50 percent year-over-year.” With each growing year, more people are relying on YouTube as their main form of income.

Management at both Twitch and YouTube are aware of the impact an end to the open internet could have on their users.

Google, YouTube’s parent company, said that “the FCC’s net neutrality rules are working well for consumers and we’re disappointed in the proposal announced last week,” in a statement to Polygon following Pai’s move to vote on a repeal.

Twitch’s response to the vote goes a little more in-depth on the subject. In a statement issued by the platform on Dec. 12, Twitch said that the “loss of net neutrality would be a buff to ISPs and a nerf to consumers. Its repeal could have a serious impact on our community, especially for our creators who do so much to make Twitch the unique place it is.”

“Net neutrality has played an important role in the history of Twitch,” the company’s CEO, Emmett Shear, added. “Without it, we might not be here today, and our streamers might not be here tomorrow ... Because our streamer community — many of which are small business owners — depend on their viewers having easy access to their channels and reliable quality of service, repealing net neutrality will erode the power of the internet to enable and create these types of jobs.”

Creators like Greg Miller, co-founder and co-host of comedy and gaming channel Kinda Funny, rely on Twitch and YouTube to pay the bills. Miller told Polygon that he’s not trying to panic about it, instead waiting to see how everything plays out. But as he and his co-hosts (Tim Gettys and Nick Scarpino) prepare for what may happen, Miller said is pondering the ramifications.

“It does get really scary when you think about the best friend (those who subscribe to Kinda Funny shows) on the other side of the screen,” Miller said. “On a slow day, we put out two to three hours of content on YouTube.”

Miller added that if internet service providers somehow began to charge customers extra for using streaming or video playback sites like Twitch and YouTube, the Kinda Funny team would have to “figure out how to do our shows and get them to our audience in the right way, so they’re not spending more money.”

The audience that watches Kinda Funny on YouTube isn’t necessarily the same one that watches their content on Twitch, Miller told Polygon. If one website is treated differently or costs more because net neutrality is repealed, that will change how Kinda Funny does business.

“If we have to pay more for the internet, then we have to look at a better package for our subscribers,” Miller said. “We need to look at what our new operating cost is, how that affects revenue. There’s a lot to consider.”

ISPs charing extra for certain online services isn’t an unrealistic scenario. What if, hypothetically, Amazon launched its own ISP and decided that streaming video at a higher resolution on Twitch can be done for free, but would cost extra on YouTube? For content creators who use both platforms, that means spending more time focusing on Twitch while trying to find a way to keep fans on YouTube happy. That could result in fewer overall viewers and less income for groups like Kinda Funny.

Pai isn’t backing down from what he sees as the negatives of an open internet, however. He offered the following statement in April when he introduced a proposal to repeal the Open Internet Order:

What was the problem that Title II [the classification under which the new Net Neutrality rules, which were published and made official on April 13, 2015] was supposed to address? We were warned that without it, the internet would suddenly devolve into a digital dystopia of fast lanes and slow lanes…Did these fast lanes and slow lanes exist? No. The truth of the matter is that we decided to abandon successful policies solely because of hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom. It’s almost as if the special interests pushing Title II weren’t trying to solve a real problem but instead looking for an excuse to achieve their longstanding goal of forcing the internet under the federal government’s control.

Pai’s stance has support from some of the biggest telecommunicators, including Comcast.

“Title II is an outdated regulatory regime, harms investment and innovation, and is not at all necessary to guarantee consumers an Open Internet,” wrote David Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, in a blog posted on April 26.

Cohen added that as early as 2005, Comcast has supported the “four basic principles to ensure a free and open Internet” upheld by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

“We all need to step back from the partisan rhetoric that has too often impeded rational discussion on net neutrality,” Cohen wrote.

Dariani disagrees with the opposition’s view — and questions their true stance. Dariani said the rules set in place during the Obama era ensured that the internet would be treated as a utility, meaning ISPs couldn’t create fast lanes. Despite Pai’s promises not to repeal these aspects of net neutrality, Dariani and the streamers he represents find that hard to believe. Dariani told Polygon, “I’ve read a lot of the messaging from the cable companies and everyone who advocates for it, but the reality is that I can’t put myself in a position where what they’re saying doesn’t make sense other than it makes them more money.”

When it comes down to big corporations taking on individuals who use the internet every single day — especially for those who work — Dariani’s not surprised that there’s an uproarious response.

“Right now, we have a lot of rags-to-riches stories on Twitch and YouTube: people who used to deliver pizza and now make good income, people who used to be homeless and can now afford a house,” Dariani said. “All of this is because of a career they’ve been able to make for themselves online.”

Streamers like Miller are willing to fight for their internet-enabled careers. Miller noted that the debate “keeps coming up every few months, and you need to be ready to war.” Using outages on various websites and campaigns on Twitter to ensure that people are aware of what’s happening is one defense tactic he and other streamers employ to do just that.

“I want to make sure this is a thing that’s happening that people are aware of,” Miller said. “Whether that’s people who follow me on Twitter — or even my mother, who’s disconnected from the internet — everyone needs to know this is a threat to them and the internet as they know it.”

Certain companies, like Reddit, have also started to speak out in favor of net neutrality with messages like the one below, which appears when trying to visit as a way to bring attention to the issue. Companies, streamers and internet activists are trying to bring attention to the cause and help explain what the heart of the issue is. For some people, that means getting as technical with their explanations, so that no one is left confused.

Net Neutrality
Reddit’s form of protest in support of Net Neutrality
Reddit

“The idea is that we want to use these catch-all terms that confuses both sides,” Twitch streamer dmbrandon told Polygon over Discord. “When we call it ‘net neutrality’ and then the bill that’s going against it is the ‘Restoring Internet Freedom Act,’ it’s hard to discern as a casual onlooker what’s actually going on. I don’t like using the term Net Neutrality because some people are like, ‘We have to repeal it,’ thinking they’re saying, ‘This is something that seems bad,’ because they don’t understand the difference between ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’ unless they’re specifically told.”

He’s not wrong. When politicians, like Sen. Mike Lee, suggest that maintaining the FCC’s Open Internet Order "would put federal bureaucrats in charge of engineering the Internet’s infrastructure,” it makes sense that those wary of increased governmental intervention would have concerns about net neutrality.

That’s why dmbrandon makes it his mission to outline exactly what he means when he’s using certain terms. The less chance there is for people to misunderstand what pro-open internet streamers are saying, the more likely it is that their arguments in favor of net neutrality will come through.

“I like to be a little more technical in the term,” dmbrandon said. “I support the Title II classification of the internet, meaning that companies who provide this understand that this has to formed as a utility. They can’t overcharge and gouge the price; they can’t ensure that a company can pay them for faster access.”

Streamers like dmbrandon are very outspoken supporters of net neutrality for reasons like this and then some. (When asked if he was worried about if it would affect him personally as a streamer in the next few years, he joked that he liked “to know that I have a shelf life as an entertainer.”) The most basic of these reasons, though, is how the repeal will answer the big question: Will this affect jobs?

“Initially, no,” dmbrandon said. “I don’t think anyone’s job in the next two years will be threatened. In 10 years if things haven’t changed, I would assume that, yes, most jobs on the internet are going to be very, severely at risk.

“The idea that we keep this leadership for 10 years, to me, is basically dystopian.”

No matter how the vote goes, everyone Polygon spoke to agreed on one thing: Keeping the internet open for all is not a conversation that’s going to die, as those who continue to defend their livelihoods online won’t stop fighting back against any threats.

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance in this world,” dmbrandon said. “Will everyone [fight]? I don’t speak for the entire country, it’s impossible for me to know that. What I know is that I will always do my best to influence people on what I believe is right, whatever harms the least amount of people; the greater good is very important.

“In this case, the internet is the greatest good.”

Update: The FCC voted to repeal net neutrality today.