There’s so much happening in the world of internet policy (or lack thereof) that a recap of this week’s hullaboo was in order. Thanks to our wonderful intern Alexandra Wood for putting the following report together.
Between the public hearing in Minneapolis, rumors of closed-door talks resuming and a good ol’ fashioned protest, this has been a wild week in the open internet debate. As you may recall, a court decision in April 2010 called into question the FCC’s ability to enforce rules to preserve the internet an open platform with low barriers to entry for independent creators (and everyone else). Since then, industry, public interest organizations and the FCC have been examining any number of potential regulatory or legislative solutions to this problem.
Public Hearing with the FCC in Minneapolis
On Thursday, August 19, the Save the Internet Coalition hosted a public hearing in Minneapolis featuring FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael J. Copps, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, and Senator Al Franken. The Senator set the tone for the discussions, stating, “I believe that net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.” (You may remember Senator Franken making his first big pro-open internet splash at last year’s Future of Music Policy Summit, after which he sat down to chat with Mike Mills of R.E.M. Check out both here.)
Also in attendance were representatives from leading public interest organizations, including Free Press, the Center for Media Justice and the Main Street Project. The meeting attracted 750 attendees more than a thousand online viewers.
This hearing was the latest discussion in the ongoing debate over the future of the internet, which has picked up even more steam in the wake of Verizon and Google’s joint proposal for how to manage broadband. Many of the speakers at the Minneapolis hearing voiced similar concerns to those we identified — namely that ill-defined plans for a premium “fast-lane” on the internet where major content providers could pay for priority delivery could create a situation where independent content producers (ike labels and musicians) couldn’t afford to compete in the marketplace. Many people describe this as the internet becoming like cable TV. Being that we’re into the whole music thing, we might compare it to consolidated commercial radio, which is all but closed off to independent and niche music. And that’s why we’ve supported open internet structures for pretty much our entire 10-year history.
The folks in Minneapolis identified this moment as a potential turning point for the internet. And may very well be right.
Commissioner Copps predicted that the Google-Verizon proposal would create “gated communities for the affluent.” And he didn’t stop there.”So for example, a special Verizon-Google or Comcast-NBC service could come to you extra quickly, with special quality of service or priority, and therefore decrease the amount of bandwidth left for the open Internet that you and I know today,” he said.
Sen. Franken imagined how this might play out in practice, particularly in light of the proposed Comcast/NBC Universal merger. “If Comcast is allowed to merge with NBC, it will not be long before Verizon or AT&T say, ‘You know what? We better buy Disney/ABC. We better buy CBS/Viacom.’ And what you’re going to have is a handful of companies that own all the programming and provide all the Internet service. So a handful of companies will have their hands on all of the information that all of us get. And that is very, very dangerous.”
To that end, Commissioner Copps issued a call to action: “I suppose you can’t blame companies for seeking to protect their own interests, but you can blame policymakers if we let them get away with it.”
Closed Door Industry Talks Resume
On Wednesday, industry groups (well, the ones not named Google or Verizon, anyway) resumed negotiations over open internet principles.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the companies involved include AT&T, Verizon, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, as well as a trade group called the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. If these parties reach an agreement, it may serve as a model for a regulatory approach to broadband and scupper independent FCC efforts to keep the web open for innovation and entrepreneurship. (Wonk alert! If you need more explanation on that, head here.) It’s interesting to note that the FCC recently halted its own closed door talks with industry following the Google-Verizon proposal. Those meetings included representatives from the public interest present; the current talks do not.
On Wednesday, a number of music industry groups, including the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), issued a response to the Google-Verizon proposal in the form of a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The letter asks Google to take a more aggressive approach to online piracy. The groups point out that the proposal addressed only “legal content” without describing how an internet service provider should handle attempts by its customers to access illegal content. (ISPs and certain online service providers currently have “safe harbor” from content infringment, provided they comply with the takedown requirments and association provisions outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.) The letter doesn’t describe a preferred method for combatting unauthorized filesharing, but it does indicate that many rightsholders would welcome more assistance from industry and government in doing so.