Breaking the Internet: Artists and Organizations Respond to the Repeal of Net Neutrality

DIS and Rachel Haot's Polimbo.COURTESY THE ARTISTS

DIS and Rachel Haot’s Polimbo.


Last Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality rules, which had protected internet users from having their service controlled by businesses with differing interests. Ajit Pai, the chairman of the FCC, said the repeal would help consumers and promote competition. But it has been clear since protests mounted prior to the vote that many users stand to lose out. Previously, denizens of the internet have been safeguarded against blockages from certain websites or increased rates for better connection speeds. Now, internet service providers, or ISPs, can play an unregulated role in shaping the average user’s experience. Put simply, the net neutrality repeal will change the lives of most Americans with an internet connection.

In the wake of the announcement, ARTnews reached out to various organizations and artists whose work depends on the internet. Most expressed a combination of anger and anxiety over the repeal. Many said that, though the short-term impacts of the repeal remain unclear—especially in light of lawsuits against the FCC to be filed by various states alleging that the decision-making process was marred by suspicious public input—aftershocks will certainly reverberate throughout the art world.

“It’s going to turn fast internet access to every website into something that’s more of a privilege than it is currently,” said Michael Connor, the artistic director of Rhizome, an art-and-technology enterprise that has championed digital art since 1996. “The way the internet has evolved, access is important for cultural reasons. Now, internet service providers will be dictating more what users are looking at, through data caps and control—which is a power that I wouldn’t want to put in their hands under any circumstances.”

Connor added that the net neutrality repeal will likely affect how certain kinds of art gets made. “It’s already the case that, if you make artworks that require a fast internet connection, you’re already addressing a certain kind of audience,” he said. “This will make that more true. Thinking about the political function of one’s work, one needs to factor that in and think about other ways of addressing audiences.”

One of Rhizome’s greatest innovations has been to help in the archiving of digital artworks, which have always been susceptible to erasure or alterations as internet browsers and software change. Could the net neutrality repeal change how those works are seen or preserved? “If the open Web is gone, preserved artworks will have to adapt to the channels that everyone would be still able or allowed to use,” the artist Olia Lialina said. “So it will retroactively ruin the works again.”

Lialina is a member of a generation of artists borne out of 1990s internet culture who produced so-called net art, or works that existed exclusively on the Web. Surveillance, the exchange of images and ideas, and corporate control of digital content have always been issues for net artists, and the net neutrality repeal has reignited these concerns. “Artists and truth tellers will naturally be in constant conflict with criminal imperial powers just because they are workers for humanity and tell the truth,” Heath Bunting, another net artist, said. “So artists should continue to do what they do.”

Olia Lialina’s (2015) features the artist spinning around a playground carousel. “This work is not technically dependent on net neutrality,” she said, but “it was made to visualize it.”


For years, the organization Art21 has been regularly hosting videos of studio visits on its website. But the net neutrality repeal has the organization concerned about its future. “As a non-profit organization, we are just at the point where we are finding other meaningful ways to extend our mission in arts education into a digital-era economy,” Tina Kukielski, Art 21’s executive director, told ARTnews. “Not only is our self-hosted video delivery at threat, but so too are other video distribution platforms we rely on to host our work. Putting the power into the hands of ISPs means that their choices will impact and potentially limit our work in ways that we cannot yet predict—despite their promises that no changes will occur. Perhaps most concerning is how the ruling has the potential to cut Art21 off from an audience of educators, students, and art enthusiasts hungry for reliable and trusted sources on arts discourse. The next step now is to petition Congress to pass a law on the issue and/or take the fight to the courts.”

Without net neutrality, users can expect to pay more for usage of social media, video platforms, and certain kinds of instant messaging. In Portugal, a country without net neutrality, access to Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media websites costs users an added €5 (about $6) a month—a kind of fee Americans could soon be paying too. And with limits placed on the amount of people who can use those websites, it’s likely that the flow of online content—the way that certain articles get shared and ideas go viral—will be different than in the past.

Simon Denny, an artist whose work often deals with ownership and corporations in the digital sphere, said that the repeal of net neutrality is part of a larger story about how information gets policed online. “It’s essentially a skewing of who controls what information is prioritized, in a deeply structural way,” Denny wrote in an email. “If these few ISPs are put in charge of controlling what happens on their services and who uses them, the type of information I can access (or indeed find) would be affected, and likely skewed to support the priorities of those with money. This would affect my practice primarily in terms of content I am able to consume (research for my projects and culture I come into contact with).” Asked what artists can do, Denny said the best approach is to contact politicians and make protestations known. “As this is not a public voting situation, it seems like the best route for artists or anyone else concerned with the situation (which we should all be),” he said.

Claims that the FCC “killed the internet” with the net neutrality repeal have proliferated online, but some artists cast doubt on how true that really is. “The internet was never as free as people like to say—it’s a myth,” Eva and Franco Mattes wrote in an email. The first time they heard something similar, the duo said, was in 1995, when hackers decried new interfaces, so they remain hopeful about the prospect of alternatives to the current internet, with or without net neutrality. “I don’t think you can really kill the internet—it’s like killing a zombie,” the Matteses said. “Nowadays, for example, [we] love hanging out on the Darknet. We have a server there where we publish our videos, and soon we’ll probably start hosting other artists who are escaping from the internet we all know, like Dadaists moving to Zurich during WWI. Of course, we must pay for the server, but [we will] gladly pay some $30 a month to get rid of all the crap, ads, datamining, spying, first and last names.”

One enterprise has already responded to the net neutrality repeal with an artwork made in anticipation of the vote. In collaboration with Rachel Haot, the managing director of the startup incubator 1776, the collective DIS created Polimbo, a Tinder-like project that helps users decide their position on net neutrality. Using smiley and sad faces, users can choose whether they support paying more for content not to be made public, whether certain content should be policed, and whether internet access is a human right. The work showed in April at the Seven on Seven conference presented by Rhizome at the New Museum. At the time, the project, with its stock photographs of celebrities and its winking and nodding on the subject of dating apps, appeared a touch too ironic for its own good. In retrospect, however, it has taken on a new sense of gravitas. Last week, before the vote for repeal was handed down, DIS tweeted a link to the project, which is now available on Rhizome’s homepage, with an urgent message: “Don’t be fooled this is not a game.”

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