Last week saw Big Media deliver a powerful one-two combination of punches that may knock out today's wide open Internet. First, in a speech delivered by Motion Picture Association of America President Dan Glickman, the nation's media conglomerates vowed to fight increasingly vocal calls from policymakers and the public for "network neutrality" -- a requirement that broadband Internet consumers be permitted to access the lawful content of their choice. That's hardly a revolutionary concept, unless you're a broadband gatekeeper like Comcast that makes its customers' choices for them by discriminating against some websites and favoring others.
To justify allying with Comcast, ATT, and their ilk in a mega-million dollar lobbying campaign to beat back government action that might prevent such anti-competitive, anti-consumer discrimination, the media congloms cited the need to combat piracy of their valuable content over broadband networks. But as much as we also support fighting piracy, the MPAA's invoking that fight here is a diversionary smoke screen for what's really going on. The existing FCC policy principles that call for network neutrality, as well as every proposal to turn those principles into enforceable rules, speak to ensuring that broadband providers allow consumers "to access the lawful Internet content of their choice." By definition, pirated content is not "lawful content." Big Media's claim that Net Neutrality rules will prevent it from combating piracy goes way too far, as evidenced by Comcast's recent blocking and slowing of its customers' access to content distributed by BitTorrent. In kneecapping BitTorrent, Comcast didn't just block pirated content, but all BitTorrent content, including legitimate un-pirated content such as a file containing the text of the King James Bible, and video that BitTorrent was distributing on behalf of its clients Fox, Time Warner, and Viacom - all card-carrying members of the MPAA!
Now consider the second powerful blow Big Media leveled against the open Internet last week. On Wednesday, Hulu.com went "live" after months in beta, streaming video of film and television produced by most of the media congloms that make up the MPAA. [BTW, as Nikki Finke asked, how is it that this NBC-Universal and News Corp. (FOX) "joint venture" to distribute via Internet content owned by these companies, plus that of Sony, Warners, MGM-UA, and others, doesn't violate antitrust laws? After all, not even the Bush administration's "anything goes" antitrust regulators would allow these same alleged competitors to create a "joint venture" to distribute their content via movie theaters or a Dish Network-type satellite system.]
Allowing Comcast, ATT, and other broadband gatekeepers to discriminate against video content delivered by the BitTorrents of the Internet world vastly strengthens Hulu's competitive position as the leading and "safe" web distribution method for video. And can there be any doubt that as a condition of Big Media's allying with the broadband providers to fight net neutrality that there is a clear understanding between them that Hulu will never be discriminated against in the way BitTorrent was? Look for all the Big Media companies currently using BitTorrent and other distribution over the Internet to sign up soon with Hulu. Following that, to ensure they are not discriminated against by broadband gatekeepers and placed at a competitive disadvantage, look for many more video content creators to place their content on Hulu. In a world without Net Neutrality, linking up with Big Media's Hulu -- and its insulation from Comcast-style discrimination and degrading -- will be a matter of self-preservation.
That openness [of the Internet] is threatened by the power of a small number of broadband providers to discriminate unilaterally against some categories of users or types of traffic or to accord preferential treatment to certain content providers over others, all under the ambiguous claim of "network management." While these providers may have some legitimate issues related to the technical management of their networks, there have already been cases of different treatment of users and it is clear that there must be transparency, equal treatment and an avenue of redress when the providers' private decisions trespass fair rights of others and the public interest. Thus, the issue is not whether government should regulate the Internet, but whether there will be effective oversight to prevent a handful of corporate giants from imposing their own version of private regulation to the public's detriment.
Last week's opening of Hulu and the MPAA's vehement denunciation of net neutrality are intimately related, a double-barreled shot aimed at the heart of the open Internet. With its back-to-back denunciation of Net Neutrality and its launch of Hulu as its anointed site for streaming TV, films, and video, Big Media's goal is nothing less than to turn today's wide open Internet into a closed system more akin to cable television. The likely result: as we've documented in cable, independent and diverse voices and their content will be inexorably marginalized or silenced.
To prevent this Big Media alliance with Big Cable/Telco from cornering and controlling the Internet, it is time for the government to implement reasonable network neutrality oversight that protects consumers and content creators, and preserves the open Internet we enjoy today.