Hollywood believes that the Internet is the key to its future. But its constituents are again squabbling over how to get there. As in the recent...
WASHINGTON — Hollywood believes that the Internet is the key to its future. But its constituents are again squabbling over how to get there.
As in the recent television writers strike, the major studios are at odds with some members of the creative community over digital distribution.
This time it’s about a public-policy issue known as “network neutrality.”
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Some lawmakers, public-interest advocates and big technology companies are pushing for federal rules that would prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing certain content flowing through their high-speed lines. They worry that cable and phone companies could become gatekeepers of the Internet and impede services that threaten their businesses or those of their corporate allies.
Net neutrality is a complicated issue with a wonky name. But as Congress and the Federal Communications Commission consider banning discriminatory practices on the Internet, the entertainment industry is starting to take notice — and sides.
Major movie studios and record labels are concerned that net neutrality could eliminate a potential tool for fighting online piracy. Meanwhile, independent artists want to ensure that they can disseminate their work freely.
The net-neutrality supporters’ cause has been boosted in recent months by allegations that Comcast stopped some of its Internet customers from using BitTorrent, a popular program for watching videos.
Hollywood’s involvement could elevate the largely inside-the-Beltway debate, which has smoldered since 2006 among online activists, public-interest groups, technology companies and telecommunications giants.
How lawmakers and regulators deal with the issue could have major implications for Hollywood’s battle against piracy and the burgeoning movement by writers, actors and directors to bypass large media companies by distributing their work online.
“Two years or so ago, people in our industry were still looking at the Internet and saying it’s not ready,” said Jean Prewitt, president of the Independent Film & Television Alliance. “Now, every day you see new services are being launched. So I think the issue has intersected with the marketplace reality.”
The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the major studios, says cable and phone companies need the flexibility to stop people from spreading illegal copies of movies over the Internet.
“Today, new tools are emerging that allow us to work with Internet service providers to prevent this illegal activity,” MPAA head Dan Glickman said in a speech at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas in March. “And new efforts are emerging in Washington to stop this essential progress.”
The FCC is investigating Comcast for allegedly blocking some customers from using BitTorrent, a program for sharing large files. Comcast has said it only slowed some heavy users to reduce congestion on its network during peak periods.
File-sharing is a popular way to distribute illegal content, but it also is increasingly used to distribute legal videos.
Some public-interest groups have alleged that Comcast had another reason to target BitTorrent: Online video competes with Comcast’s pay-TV service.
The 2007 incident has heightened concerns that phone and cable companies, who have spent billions to build high-speed Internet lines, could erect “tollbooths” on the information superhighway. They would determine which Web sites get access to the fast lane to deliver video and other data-heavy applications, and which get relegated to the slow lane — or maybe even stuck on the shoulder.
“If the outcome is the studios will have a preferred access of delivering content because of a deal they would get with the [Internet service providers], I think that would be a really bad thing for the industry,” said Gilles BianRosa, chief executive of Vuze, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that uses a version of BitTorrent technology to let people watch and share videos, music and games.