Why net neutrality matters

October 26, 2009

The idea that “content is king” is a favorite slogan among media people, since it’s comforting to think that the industry is ruled by its creative side. Comforting, but fictional.

Who does rule the media kingdom? Not the content creators, but the people who control their physical access to the public, that’s who. Sooner or later, channels trump content.

That’s why people who care about freedom of expression have to start by caring about the freedom of the channels over which expression flows.

Hence the importance of the simmering controversy over so-called net neutrality—a policy that is intended to keep the companies that rent us access to the Internet from playing favorites among Web services, information exchanges, content providers of all kinds.

Why does that matter? Because the pace and direction of media development have historically set by the people who controlled the contact points with the public:

– The film industry was the creature not of movie-makers, but of early 20th century theater-owners who wanted to fill their seats. They fled the East Coast for Southern California to escape the Edison Trust monopoly over supplies of film stock—a stranglehold broken up by the government in 1917. Freeing up those channels made Hollywood possible.

– The Hollywood studio system that arose rested first and foremost not on content deals with stars and directors, but on ownership of movie theaters, which froze out independent producers. In 1948 the government forced the studios to give up the cinemas–and a new Hollywood was born.

The story goes on. FM radio languished for decades, despite its inherent superiority over AM, until regulators forced radio-owners to stop squatting on FM as a secondary outlet for their AM Top-40 rubbish and populate it with content of its own. That wasn’t until the 1960s, and the result was a robust appetite for sounds to fill high-fidelity channels—the ideal midwife for the birth of alternative rock-n-roll.

Channels rule content. It’s the promise of assured access to the public that inspires and emboldens content creators.  During a 20-year period starting in the 1970s, when the three major TV networks were barred from monopolizing the downstream syndication channels for programs they produced, independent TV programming flourished, and in the aftermath three new TV networks emerged. Demonopolizing channel control was pivotal.

And so to net neutrality.  It’s now the subject of a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission formalizing a policy outlined in 2005, and it’s being written into congressional legislation that seems to have strong support.  The basic question is whether the companies that control the channels through which you access the Internet—generally big telecoms such as Comcast and AT&T—should be allowed to favor some content providers over others.

Will they be free to decide which content will flow easily and which content will go slowly? Will they be allowed to charge more for Web services that compete with companies they own, or force such independents onto slower transmission speeds, or strong-arm startups into cutting them in as partners in exchange for favored online treatment, or make it harder or costlier for you to hook up devices made by companies they aren’t in cahoots with?

Comcast, the country’s biggest cable-owner, already ran afoul of neutrality guidelines and was slapped by regulators in 2008 for furtively interfering with traffic on BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-swapping network. Comcast is moving heavily into the content business; it owns several sports channels and a big piece of E! Entertainment.  It’s pioneering an offering of online programs—HBO’s Entourage and AMC’s Mad Men—exclusively for its Internet subscribers. And it’s maneuvering to buy NBC-Universal from GE, which would give it a major TV network and one of its top movie studios.

It’s inevitable that Comcast will be competing with some of the same online services that rely on its cable systems to reach the public.

Likewise with AT&T: Where’s the guarantee that it’ll give nondiscriminatory treatment to an online company like Skype, whose worldwide Internet phone service competes directly with AT&T’s core phone service?

Control over channels constitutes a perpetual, potential stranglehold over media development, even with a technology whose growth and flowering seem to be as unstoppable as the Internet’s.

Content may never be king. The throne may still be held by the channel-masters. But net neutrality, like an information age Magna Carta, is a way to ensure that their power is not absolute.


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