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Happy Net-Neutrality Day: The Open-Internet Debate

1208 Julius Genachowski
Of course, you already know that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote Dec. 21 on a set of net-neutrality rules proposed by Chairman Julius Genachowski. Walk the streets of any of our nation’s cities and you can feel—no, smell—the excitement in the air. Here in New York, tourists crowd outside Barneys, Macy’s, and Saks hoping to peak at the fabled net-neutrality window displays. On every corner, children gather to sing net-neutrality carols. Just last week, Fox announced that it had greenlighted a remake of “Miracle on 34th Street” in which young Susan asks Kris Kringle not for a house, but for an Internet in which service providers are barred from discriminating against or favoring certain forms of content. ’Tis the season.

In reality, you’re all forgiven for not paying attention to the net-neutrality debate, which has grown more tedious than a Steve Martin Q&A at the 92nd Street Y. On Dec. 1, Genachowski proposed regulations intended to “preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet.” “Yay!” responded open-Internet activists. Then on Monday, The Washington Post reported that the proposed rules, which have not been made public, would allow broadband providers to discriminate against competitors’ content and charge users based on the amount of data they consume. “Wha?” activists said.

“This allows for fast and slow lanes, and while it suggests it would be a negative thing, nowhere does it say it violates the principle of rules,” an anonymous FCC source told the Post. Speaking unanonymously, Public Knowledge communications director Art Brodsky, whose name is hilarious, explained how the loophole could be exploited: “If you are Netflix and suddenly it costs subscribers $60 a month to use the service, then this hits you directly.”

On Monday, the Writers Guild of America East launched a campaign in support of net-neutrality rules “to prohibit ‘fast lanes’ that discriminate in favor of certain content, and to apply net neutrality in the wireless realm”—two things that, according to the Post’s reporting, Genachowski’s proposal would not do. The WGAE’s announcement came one week after the Writers Guild of America West reiterated its longstanding support for neutrality rules and warned against “a future Internet in which access is either tiered or controlled by conglomerates that would have inordinate power over consumers.”

While several unions have lined up in favor of true net neutrality, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists—along with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Directors Guild of America—have been far more cautious; those unions have emphasized than an open Internet should include reasonable network management systems to provide increased protection against content piracy. “That’s what’s really at the core for us,” said Terrie Bjorklund, AFTRA’s national associate general counsel for copyright and intellectual property, “protecting jobs, and that means protecting intellectual property, and that means fighting the theft of intellectual property on the Internet.”

SAG and AFTRA are right to make combating piracy a top priority. But as the writers’ guilds have realized, so too is ensuring that the distribution business models of the future aren’t cut down in their youths by anti-competitive business practices—the kind that the proposal being voted on Dec. 21 may not prevent.

Pictured: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (Photo: Getty Images)

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