It won't be long before the main course of this year's media banquet is served. Comcast, the largest cable operator and largest Internet Service Provider, is poised to take over NBC-Universal, the TV network/movie studio. The critics will have a great time dissecting the carcass of this deal.
But before dinner is served, and just in time for the holidays, some old and new whines are presenting themselves for our seasonal enjoyment. In New York City, songwriters are still complaining about the Internet as a City Council committee considered endorsing the simple idea of "Net Neutrality." In Washington, AT&T's top lobbyist blew his stack when an administration official endorsed Net Neutrality in terms the lobbyist didn't like. Not that there are any terms endorsing Net Neutrality that the lobbyist would like, save those with which he agrees, which are relatively meaningless.
These whines are unfortunately familiar, neither red nor white, but enough to make someone who longs for the guarantee of a free and open Internet to be blue.
They would be mere background noise to the sound of Christmas carols if it weren't for the main course, the pending announcement of Comcast, the country's largest Internet service provider, taking over NBC-Universal, one of the biggest content providers. The debate over that unwieldy combination will move Net Neutrality to the forefront of issues as policymakers and the public consider the shifting balances of power between controlling the distribution of content and the content itself. Those who want to argue that AT&T, Verizon and, yes, Comcast, should be able to play favorites and have control over the content on the Internet will have an even larger barrier to surmount as the breadth, depth and economic might of the new media giant becomes apparent.
The size of this deal makes the concerns of smaller folk look positively puny. For example, three members of the Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) performed their familiar "Got Them Industry Ruinin' Internet Blues," for the New York hearing of the Council Committee on Technology in Government. Songwriters Gordon Chambers, Phil Galdston and Rick Carnes told their familiar tale of woe, of the industry besieged by "piracy," of dropping revenue and disappearing jobs. They told of an Internet polluted by stolen materials transported in that dreaded peer-to-peer protocol dominated by bandwidth hogs. Slamming Net Neutrality because it has (in theory) led to his industry's decimation, Chambers waxed poetic when he said, "It is not the silicon chip technology born out West that makes New York great. Rather, it is the artists who live and work here who have made and will continue to make New York all that it is."
Of course, that "silicon chip technology" enabled New York's economy to grow to unprecedented heights and what's left of it now following the economic immolation is built around it also. Some artists have even been known to indulge in the Western import.
It would take a book to correct all the misimpressions and faulty assumptions the songwriters poured forth to the Committee. Fortunately, that book has been written. The title is instructive - Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age. The book, by music journalist Steve Knopper, chronicles not how the Internet ruined the music industry, but how the music industry ruined itself.
There's a good bit of history, too, noting that the industry complained of "piracy" as far back as 1982. That was at a time when the Internet wasn't even a gleam in an engineer's eye. Knopper catalogued a list of "Big Music's Big Mistakes," which show a disdain for everyone. Some of the items: 1) The CD Longbox, a total waste of space and materials that it took the industry 10 years to ditch. 2) Independent radio promotion, complete with payola, legal and illegal. 3) Digital audio tape, a nifty Sony electronics technology that the record industry killed and, in doing so, opened the way for CD-burning computers. 4) Killing the single in favor of albums or CDs with lots of songs no one wanted. The single reappeared with a vengeance in iTunes. 5) Focusing on Big Box stores, to the exclusion of smaller stores, which gave away record label marketing power as shelf space shrunk. 6) The Secure Digital Music Initiative, an early attempt at digital content control. Little use was made of this standard by large committee and Wall Street Journal reviewer Walt Mossberg said it "treats uses like potential criminals." 7) RIAA lawsuits. 8) Sony's BMG Rootkit, another backfiring content control "fix" that wrecked customer computers.
Pile on top of that an industry dependent on big hits, with big salaries to pay record execs and the fleecing those execs got from Steve Jobs when he started iTunes, and it's no wonder the record business is shattering. Surely there was some piracy, but the causes of the industry's decline are much more complex and as much a case of suicide as homicide.
Even the despised p2p protocol is taking it on the chin. Recent network studies are finding that thanks to YouTube and other streaming technologies, p2p use is shrinking.
(We pause for a moment to congratulate the songwriter's cousins in the motion picture industry. Despite their constant whingeing about "piracy," the industry had a record high Thanksgiving weekend at the box office.)
Not all of the showbiz industry is opposed to Net Neutrality. At the New York hearing, Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writer's Guild of America, East, testified that Net Neutrality is crucial to protecting the rights of digital content creators. Peterson said he was concerned with a small number of major institutions would "control the flow of data" as well as the content.
The other sideshow came courtesy of James Cicconi, AT&T's chief lobbyist in charge of keeping AT&T in charge of the Internet. Speaking at a conference recently, Andrew McLaughlin, the Obama Administration's deputy chief technology officer, linked Net Neutrality with free speech. Noting that the Chinese government has censored reports of President Obama's visit, McLaughlin said, "If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it."
As the Washington Post's Cecilia Kang reported, Cicconi issued a typically understated response:
It is deeply disturbing when someone in a position of authority, like Mr. McLaughlin, is so intent on advancing his argument for regulation that he equates the outright censorship decisions of a communist government to the network congestion decisions of an American ISP. There is no valid comparison, and it's frankly an affront to suggest otherwise.
Cicconi didn't stop there, saying:
Mr. McLaughlin's statements are ill-considered and inflammatory. They describe a supposed threat to free speech by ISPs that simply does not exist, and seem designed to manufacture a 'crisis' in order to justify regulations that could damage investment and jobs.
He also took some shots at Google, where McLaughlin formerly worked, and said McLaughlin was attempting to "smear those American companies spending billions to build out broadband and create good jobs in a difficult economy."
That is some whine, even by AT&T standards and, as with most of them, it has gone sour. Perhaps that statement forgets the 12,000 AT&T layoffs scheduled for this year, or the 16,000 layoffs scheduled by Verizon.
If the Comcast-NBC deal goes through, you can bet there will be layoffs galore there as well. There always is, when that much money is being spent. NBC is already under financial pressures.
More fundamentally, McLaughlin is proposing nothing that would damage investment and jobs. The companies can do that all by themselves, with no regulation-related excuses needed. The bottom line is that censorship is censorship, whether it is the Chinese government cutting off Obama remarks, or an AT&T Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert that not-so-accidentally deleted Eddie Vedder's saying unflattering things about then-President Bush.
Threats to an open Internet are real now, and the complexity will only get bigger if the merger goes through. Comcast can't be allowed to leverage control over its programs through control of its vast network to harm consumers or to impede competition.
The proposed rules which Cicconi protests, the Net Neutrality rules, would make certain that private companies stay out of the way of Internet content, much as the Constitution says that Congress shall "make no law" abridging freedom of speech. What's good enough for the U.S. government should be good enough for AT&T, and for Comcast, no matter how big it gets.