Rethinking Net Neutrality

Entertainment has never been a one-size-fits-all experience and shouldn’t be reduced to such by net neutrality

Recently, while reading Mark Lipsky’s Hollyblog "Net Neutrality: As Important as Air," I had a deja vu experience. It was a complete redux of the arguments that were prevalent in the music biz a few years back. Fortunately, most in the music biz have moved on to a more useful approach.

Lipsky’s "fear the gatekeepers" argument always gets some early traction with those of us who survive by access to an audience. But when your audience has already been stolen by P2P file looting, worrying about gatekeepers distracts from the real problem.

Potential ISP blocking of content isn’t what’s killing the entertainment industry; piracy is. We need to address both. But fixating on net neutrality means we are dealing with the theoretical problem of the future, instead of the one that is killing us now.

Under a net neutrality regime where the internet service providers are not allowed to run "smart networks," the FCC would lock down the internet in its current piracy-friendly configuration. Yes, there would be no "gatekeepers," but there also would be no "ticket takers" and, thus, no gate receipts. Everyone would continue to have total access to all movies and music in a non-discriminatory manner and at the piracy price of zero. The movie industry would soon be faced with the same no-win conundrum the record industry has faced: Sue individual illegal downloaders or watch your jobs disappear. A lose-lose scenario.

Net neutrality, as portrayed by Mark Lipsky, is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either we stop the gatekeepers from taking over the internet or the small independents will be squeezed out of the market by the big media companies.

But having spent my life in the entertainment industry, I recognize that you should never let yourself be backed into an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it deal. There’s always room to negotiate…
So in negotiating this net neutrality deal, how about starting with the stuff we all agree on?

I think everyone on all sides of this debate agrees that there should be no blocking of legal content. That’s a good deal. But there’s no reason why we can’t prevent the ISPs from hamstringing legal content while also allowing for the creation of premium content channels that will give our fans an option that illegal filesharing cannot. That is a much better deal for creators. Stop blocking, fight piracy! Sounds like a win-win to me.

For this deal to work, we need to be able to fight piracy with stutter-free video and pristine audio, and that requires a smart network that many net neutrality proposals would bar. At the same time, we need to insist on total transparency from the ISPs to make sure they behave. We need to be sure that all users of the network are getting what they paid for.

Your dear old granny may only want to use the internet to send email and clip coupons (at least that’s what she claims!). She should know what she is paying for, and she should be assured that she will get it.

But when we discuss premium channels, we need to remember who those heavy bandwidth users are and why they need those channels. Those are our movie streaming fans, and we want them to be allowed to purchase the absolute best experience they can afford. That is not discrimination — that is empowerment.

It makes zero sense to tell our fans that net neutrality could keep them from having the premium services even though they are willing to pay for them. But by barring networks from guaranteeing service quality to content creators who want to offer premium service, that’s exactly what net neutrality would do.

Entertainment has never been a one-size-fits-all experience and shouldn’t be reduced to such by net neutrality or any other federal regulation.

So I would suggest to Mark that he and his friend should have another cup of coffee and rethink the net neutrality deal. Look for ways to improve the deal where everybody on the creative side wins.

Remember this isn’t just a David vs. Goliath battle between indies and Big Media. There are a lot of other players in the internet media space who would love to see us chew each other up and then they will swoop in and pick the bones of the loser.