In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to kill net neutrality, the policy that safeguards a free and equal internet and allows us all to tweet, like, email, surf, learn, bank, and fuck (or at least witness fucking) regardless of circumstance.
When the decision was announced, a number of outlets reported on how this might threaten what many feel is the internet’s primary purpose—the free consumption of porn. Understandably, Pornhub—with its 75 million daily visitors positioning it as the 36th most-visited website on the internet—was radically opposed.
“No one in the porn industry ever yells ‘slower, slower, slower.’ We’re much more accustomed to ‘faster, faster, faster.’” Corey Price, VP at Pornhub offered winkingly to Motherboard in June.
The democratization of porn has been great for the consumer, who now has the ability to access basically any keyword-able act, relationship, or fetish, at any hour of the day or night, and great for companies like PornHub, which profit mainly from ads, buying up competitors, and posting massive amounts of pirated material. At the same time, it has disproportionately hurt porn makers and performers, who are forced to work longer hours and produce more content, only to have their material stolen by tube sites. (The onslaught of piracy led to the launch of the #PayForYourPorn campaign in 2014.)
And, perhaps expectedly, porn performers—especially self-employed creators like cam performers—are also one of the most vulnerable communities facing the looming repeal of net neutrality. At this year’s Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, many were happily unaware of the threat to business (with some declining to comment because they felt they didn’t have a good understanding of the issue, and others acting vaguely, but not overly alarmed when I briefly explained it to them), but for some there was a real palpable sense of anger towards a government agency gleefully scrapping protections that would destroy their means of earning a living.
Net neutrality was first integrated into policy in 2005 when the Federal Communications Commission adopted four principles to “preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of public internet.” But it wasn’t until the 2015 Open Internet Order that net neutrality as we know it today was officially made law. The order reclassified broadband providers as “common carriers,” or a utility that serves the public interest, and officially put them under the FCC’s jurisdiction (as opposed to the Federal Trade Commission’s). It also set regulations about what ISPs could and could not do—like blocking websites and gouging prices.
With the repeal, those rights will be revoked, with no clear policy in place to prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from acting out against their competitors.
“The net neutrality repeal, at its heart, is really a way to allow the companies that we pay to get online, the Comcasts, the AT&Ts, the Verizons of the world, to make more money by figuring out how to get money out of the businesses that are online,” said Ryan Singel, the Media and Strategy Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society on a call with Jezebel.
However, since the enactment of the repeal is, as of now, in the theoretical future, it’s not clear how ISPs will actually act in such a world, free from the burden of neutrality regulations. But experts have weighed in with what they think could happen. ISPs could implement paid prioritization, where large digital companies could pay for better bandwidth, or by blocking, throttling, or censoring competing providers, or even sites or kinds of content that mess with their bottom line. In December, the Associated Press polled seven major internet providers about whether or not they’d establish “fast” and “slow lanes”—and not a single one said they’d rule out the possibility. In general, telecom companies have declined to comment on their plans.
Jay Phillips is the CEO and President of iWantEmpire.com, a company that is, in his words, “a culmination of what happens when artists take control of their future.” In my words, it’s a group of sites that serve as a platform and distribution channel for independent porn artists, including iWantClips, iWantCustomClips, and iWantPhoneChat. When we chatted at AEE, Phillips said he wasn’t particularly worried about the fate of the empire should ISPs begin violating net neutrality. He was worried, however, about the artists.
“For the independents—we have over 10,000 independent artists—we are one of their methods of content distribution,” he told me. “It’s kind of like the Dairy Farmers association. There’s unity, there’s power in numbers, but as an individual brand, a lot of our artists also have their own independent membership sites where they’re selling content as well, and I worry about their opportunity.”
Under this new theoretical order, larger sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, and, yes, Pornhub, could afford to pay their way to a faster lane; independent creators couldn’t.
“How can they be seen? How can they be heard when their internets could possibly halt to a stop?” Phillips said before offering another analogy. “It’s the equivalent of driving on the highway and you’re seeing traffic, and there’s that HOV lane over there and you wish you had one more person in the car with you so you could just keep going. It’s the equivalent of all lanes used to be going and now it’s a traffic jam and nobody gets to go in the HOV lane unless you can really pay for it.”
“People who are niche, whether that’s local news, or someone who’s running a specialized porn site or a cam girl, the cost of being online is going to go up,” Singel told me. “That will necessarily make the internet more boring.”
Mia Li, president of the board of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, makes money through a mixture of shooting for studios and camming—and to find an audience for her self-produced clips and cam work, she depends on social media. If access to that slows—according to the University of Michigan, social media could theoretically be grouped into a premium package, for instance, and see a big decrease in users—her business will suffer.
“If people’s access to my social media is challenged, the rate of new subscribers or consumers will slow, because those are the primary platforms I advertise my content,” she told Jezebel in an email. “In the adult industry we know it’s already difficult to get people to pay for their porn. I fear that the repeal of net neutrality will make it even harder to get people to spend money on content when they’re concerned with increased spending to continue using the internet as they normally have.”
jessica drake, sex educator, Wicked Pictures star, and founder of the #PayforYourPorn campaign, was less moderate when I asked her about the looming repeal.
“I’m horrified, first, let’s address that right away. It’s scary, everyone should be really scared about it,” she said. “I think when folks think of the adult industry, they imagine that it’s this multibillion-dollar industry because that’s what’s been reported, but that’s greatly exaggerated, especially now because of piracy. I think they imagine that the bigger companies like us, like Wicked, would be able to pay but that’s not necessarily the case when bigger companies come in on top, or companies that come in for morality reasons to make it harder for us to have an existing online presence.”
“From a performer’s standpoint, and from the standpoint of a sex worker and someone speaking for other sex workers that maybe don’t have a contract, or cam girls or things like that,” she continued, “they have small amateur websites, and this will obliterate them.”
Cam performers, like Ela Darling, the co-creator of virtual reality technology used by Cam4 and the company’s VR content manager, are the ultimate independent artists—they often work from home, set their own hours, and have absolute creative autonomy. They often choose this professional route because it offers them a flexibility impossible in other fields.
“I know several cam performers, myself included, who chose this because it gave them control in a way that a traditional job wouldn’t let them, or because they have an illness,” Darling told me on the phone. “I know several performers who have lupus or who have other conditions like that where it makes it really hard for them to stand on their feet, or do a service job, or have a traditional 9-5 in an office because their health fluctuates. Allowing them to set their own schedules at home and to engage with people in this way has been something that offers them a really great opportunity to take control of their lives and their careers.”
Camming also enables people to work in porn regardless of where they live, whereas traditional studio production would necessitate living in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or another city where porn productions are common enough to pay the bills.
Jessica Fappit, who describes herself as an internet personality and cam girl, agrees that cammers could be disproportionately affected. “We thrive off of bandwidth,” she told me at AEE. “If I were to log in and start doing a show and my bandwidth were to be throttled, or I were to be classified as a high-bandwidth consumer and charged a premium, my industry would suffer.”
“If the show slows down, if the connection gets worse, guys log out. And you get prioritized by the quality that you can stream in, so if I can’t stream in HD, it means less money and I can’t pay my bills.”
The Real Skies, a cammer who streams via a platform called Chaturbate, weighed in: “If you wanna see me wank my shit on camera for you, you gotta vote for net neutrality.”
Ernesto Falcon, the Legislative Counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to defend civil liberties in the digital world, explained that porn makers are especially vulnerable as online video creators, but also as creators of content that is heavily stigmatized.
“You look at your major online platforms that exist now in terms of video—none of them allow any sort of pornographic material,” Falcon told Jezebel on the phone. “I think anyone who creates content that’s controversial or disfavored is at risk, because the companies with the most money that can strike the deals with internet service providers... they’re also the same kinds of companies that filter out content that’s disfavored by a number of people. Anything that’s unpopular, whether it’s an opinion or it’s some sort of form of expression, is gonna have less options. And they may have no options if the one platform that’s the most valuable is also the one that blocks that type of content in the first place.”
“Without any FCC oversight and no FCC net neutrality rules,” Singel agrees, “there’s nothing to stop Verizon or Comcast from blocking content. They may say they don’t want to, but there’s nothing that legally holds them to that. So you can imagine ways that those companies could be forced via public pressure to block objectionable websites.”
Video streaming is one of the most valuable forms of content on the internet. If wealthier companies continue to exclude pornographic content from their platforms—despite the potential for profitability, mainstream companies haven’t yet been willing to surmount that morality hurdle to getting into the porn game—it could be relegated to secondary services which will, by definition, not work as well. Since people understandably gravitate to content that works, that secondary tier could, according to Falcon, disappear.
“The cam girl is no different than a documentarian, and no different than anyone who creates video online and is seeking an audience,” he continued. “Any sort of independent artist who is not gonna go through a mainstream studio to get their exposure, they’re all in the same boat.”
The repeal of net neutrality hasn’t taken effect yet, but is set to in the next few weeks. As of early February, a number of states have pushed back against the repeal—21 states and the District of Columbia are suing the FCC; several states, including California, Massachusetts, and Nebraska, have introduced bills mandating neutrality, while New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Montana have passed executive orders. The Internet Association, an organization that represents tech giants including Google and Netflix, announced its intention to intervene; meanwhile, Senate Democrats are attempting to stop the repeal through the Congressional Review Act.
Singel told me that he thinks this massive backlash will at least spook ISPs to use caution when adapting to a post-repeal world, should the repeal stay in place. However, given ISPs’ “track record and their public statements, it’s foolish not to think that they’ll try to figure out a way to tax everyone on the internet.”
But if net neutrality does disappear, so too will the ways we’ve built to interact with the world, to participate in and learn about sex, and our own sexuality. Ela Darling told me that one of her biggest fears is the loss of readily available sex education, especially for queer people, or for those who don’t have what lawmakers determine a “conventional sexual appetite.”
“By imposing restrictions on net neutrality, it keeps people from accessing content that they have every right to enjoy and to access,” she said. “Such an ingrained part of our cultural experience is watching porn and watching sex on the internet, and being able to explore your own sexuality through a consensual production between two other people.”
She continued: “We’re all just sort of crossing our fingers and really hoping that this recent thing that was just passed is gonna be dismantled, because it is so much more than porn. If it was a porn issue, people would’ve voted it in a long time ago, because we’re excellent scapegoats. People love to hate porn as much as they enjoy it themselves.”