Film Fund-amentals: Net Neutrality and the Indie Filmmaker

Three things are certain in life. Death and taxes are two of them. The other is the recurrence of the bogus claim that a public service can be fairly managed for the greater public good by private business. The whole theory is as harsh as taxes and more finite than death, and despite its long history of fraud and failure, it keeps coming back as a phony bit of common wisdom.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the history of the media. When radio came along near the beginning of the twentieth century, it was presented as a marvelous new technology for the advancement of science, education and culture. The public airwaves would be filled with intelligent discussions about important topics crucial to our civic well being. Then the public airwaves were turned over to the “stewardship” of private business, and the whole thing was used as a cheap way to sell airspace for advertising.

The emergence of television in the middle of the twentieth century was the next step in the technical and intellectual advancement of human discourse. The public TV airwaves would be a rich forum for scientific, cultural and civic communication and educational development. So the public airwaves were, once again, turned over to the stewardship of private business, which then used the medium as a fast way to sell us more crap.

With this history in mind, it has always been a safe bet that the Internet was doomed. Its fate was sealed the very moment anyone referred to it as a great advancement in the technological betterment of humankind. Even now, under the free and open skies of net neutrality, the system is a bizarre smörgåsbord of people hawking everything imaginable (and quite a few things that are not imaginable). It has become the world’s biggest flea market, shopping mall, red light district and army surplus store. God have mercy on me, but I love it.

Which is OK. I’m an American. We Americans can’t help ourselves. We love to shop and sell. It’s one of the few major things we’re truly good at. It’s almost as innate to our sensibility as a plate of Pop Tarts. It is virtually protected by the US Constitution (and trust me, after George Washington won the Battle of Yorktown, he went shopping). More than our right, it’s our destiny.

But who gets to control this process and why do they get to control it? For the past several years this has been a major political battleground. As a presidential candidate, Obama championed the concept of net neutrality and did a smash-up job of using the net on his drive to the White House. As a president, he has been less clear on his stand and has begun giving off strange mixed signals.

The history of the FCC on the issue has been in both directions as they have swung back and forth for over ten years.  In 1996, under Clinton, the FCC determined that broadband was a form of “telecommunication service” and therefore was under their oversight. In 2002, under Bush, they decided it was merely “information services” (important distinctions under FCC regulatory guidelines), and therefore it wasn’t under their regulatory control. Now, under Obama, they sort of want to take it back under their wing but have been banned by a federal court because of the 2002 FCC decision, which sort of means that maybe they could press the issue and maybe they will and maybe they won’t, depending on the wishes of Obama, who hasn’t exactly been clear about his own thinking since he seems to be waiting for the FCC to tell him what they want….Yep, it kind of goes on like that.

Which is where the Google-Verizon proposal comes into play. Basically, the proposal would be to create multiple tiers to the Internet based on levels of subscription service. Oddly enough, their proposal has a bizarre resemblance to the membership fees used by various adult dating services. So at the top of the tier will be the Gold Members, who get full service at full speed straight to home plate with a score every night of their service contract. In the middle will be the Silver Members, who receive an occasional girlfriend experience with a shot at first base plus a few additional options and a possible kiss at the end of the evening. At the bottom will be the free members (what some refer to as freebie losers), who will get e-mail access so they can receive lots of cheap come-ons for full service along with limited access to mainstream commercial sites that will provide them with limited solo amusement on all of those lonely Saturday nights.

There are many pros and cons to the net neutrality issue,  but mostly I have a bad sense that we’re once again being conned into turning over a public trust to private business for no other reason than the simple fact that we might be dumb enough to do so. Both the best and the worse of the Internet has only been feasible by way of its free and open range (ironically, Google’s own history is a testament to this fact). Most likely, the end of net neutrality will pave the way toward Internet inequality and slow down various levels of development and access.

Which is also why this issue is of grave concern to indie filmmakers. One of the few major areas for future development in indie filmmaking is production and distribution access via the Internet. For some indie filmmakers, it has become the only venue still open to them (and often the cheapest and most available). With the end of net neutrality (and the impending corporate media takeover of the net), this access will basically come to a screeching halt. A few limited points of access will still be provided, just as the major studios occasionally release a low-budget movie. But the level playing field will be gone.

So I guess that means I’m going to have to finally start signing all those petitions in favor of net neutrality (OK, I’ve been busy lately and keep putting it off). We need to maintain an open Internet in the same way we need to maintain free and open parks. If the FCC can’t do it, then let’s place it under the National Park Service. Then Ken Burns can turn it into a documentary for PBS.