Net Neutrality: MPAA vs. IFTA

Last November’s American Film Market (AFM) was abuzz with the news that freshly-minted President-elect Barrack Obama had come out in favor of net neutrality (i.e. unregulated Internet) in the U.S. Jean Prewitt, CEO of the Independent Film and TV Alliance (IFTA), which organizes the AFM, capitalized on Obama’s position on Internet neutrality in her opening day remarks, noting that her organization viewed it as favorable.

Conversely, earlier in the year, U.S. studio lobbying arm, the Washington D.C.-based Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), had come down against net neutrality. MPAA CEO Dan Glickman announced his organization’s perspective in a speech last year when he said, “We are opposing so-called ‘net neutrality’ government action. And, in the process, we are standing up for our customers, for our economy and for the ability of content producers to continue to create great movies for the future.”

With Internet neutrality fast becoming a hot topic, VideoAge decided to explore its pros and cons by speaking to IFTA’s Prewitt and the MPAA’s Michael O’Leary, senior vp for Federal Affairs. Curiously, while IFTA was very forthcoming about its stance on Web regulation, the MPAA was at first reluctant to address the issue and, later, declined to answer some of VideoAge’s questions. In particular, O’Leary declined to go on the record with a definition of the term “net neutrality” as the MPAA sees it.

Ultimately, however, if readers come out confused by the whole exercise it is because, the two sides are basically in a semantic disagreement, since the MPAA and IFTA are both against regulating the Internet, but for different reasons.

Pros

VideoAge International: Could you define the term “net neutrality”?
Jean Prewitt: The issue is different for different players. But overall, what is meant by “net neutrality” is open, non-discriminatory access to the Internet. This means that broadband providers would be obligated to carry all the content out there regardless of source, not counting illegal materials. The issue first came up in a 2006 [U.S.] legislative battle that pitted the Googles and Yahoos against the telecom companies. The telecoms wanted to be able to pick and choose what websites they allowed through. The issue has broadened since then.

VAI: Are there other definitions for net neutrality out there?
JP: Interest groups define it in different ways. For example, some people think net neutrality should mean no one can filter at all, and some people think it should mean no government involvement whatsoever.

VAI: Can you summarize IFTA’s pro-neutrality stance?
JP: We believe that legal content should not be subject to discrimination and that consumers should be able to choose what services and devices they want to use. We also believe in transparency for consumers, meaning that if there is to be regulation from a broadband provider, consumers know about it beforehand and can choose to go elsewhere.

VAI: Who are the opponents of net neutrality?
JP: The Internet providers have been against it. They argue that without limited bandwidth they need to be able to manage content. The MPAA is also against it because they think it will hinder their ability to search for and block piracy.

VAI: Without net neutrality (i.e., regulated Internet), who are the losers?
JP: The consumers, and their freedom to make choices. Also, certain websites that provide services that compete with broadband companies. For example, websites that stream movies and videos could be seen as competition to the providers [who also provide TV content] and blocked.

VAI: Does net neutrality have any down sides?
JP: Piracy is an issue. There is a great deal of technological knowledge that [the industry] doesn’t possess. But whenever you move towards government regulation, you have to hope that the government regulates with a light touch. The fact is, the Internet has grown out from the creativity and enthusiasm of the public. When the time finally comes for regulation, it’s going to take a collaboration between the private sector, who has the technological know-how, and the government, who has the power to provide leadership.

Cons

VAI: Can you summarize the MPAA’s anti-neutrality stance?
Michael O’Leary: Our stance is pretty simple. There’s been a debate about whether the government should regulate the Internet for a while now. We have been looking at the issue for a few years. We’re opposed to overly broad government regulation, which is what net neutrality would be. We’re not advocating for regulation, contrary to what people believe. At this point any type of overly broad regulation, such as instituting a rule like net neutrality, would be premature. What is comes down to is providers need to be allowed to manage content in order to deal with piracy, which net neutrality would prevent.

VAI: Who are the other opponents of net neutrality?
MO: The studios, meaning the six major studios that we represent, who want to protect their content. Also the service providers, although they are coming at it from a different perspective.

VAI: Who are the opponents of your anti-neutrality stance?
MO: When there’s an issue floating around in Washington D.C. for a while a number of coalitions appear. A lot of people support the concept of net neutrality, but in practice, it’s not altogether clear what they envision as an ideal system.

VAI: If net neutrality is instituted, who are the losers?
MO: What it really comes down to is that we as an industry have made major strides at making TV and movies available on the Internet over the past couple of years through Hulu [a TV streaming service] and a number of other things. So the entire industry loses out as a result of blanket regulations. But at the same time, we have to worry about theft and piracy. We have to worry about content being misappropriated. We can’t have Congress step in and blunt our ability to grow, because it will hurt the consumers.

VAI: Do you see a compromise between the two points of view any time in the future?
MO: I honestly don’t know. There will be a lot of discussion in the next few years. When policy makers sit down to discuss this issue and to seriously discuss the future of consumer choice on the Internet, we can only hope that we’ll be able to voice our practical concerns. Up until now we have not been able to. ES