Cable television

TV showrunners at FCC: Internet risks becoming ‘like cable TV’

As the FCC prepares new internet conduct rules, more than 240 showrunners and TV creators have signed a letter from the Writers Guild of America West urging the commission to avoid regulations that would allow content companies to pay for delivery faster to users.

The letter, sent on Tuesday, was the most significant response yet from Hollywood figures as the commission prepares for a key vote on Thursday.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler introduced a proposal last month that would allow some forms of paid tiering, and it was met with a firestorm of protest from public interest groups and some Capitol Hill lawmakers. who see it as diluting the concept of net neutrality, and opening the door to a two-speed Internet, in which media conglomerates can pay ISPs for “fast lanes” to consumers.

Wheeler has since revised his proposal, with the aim of prohibiting an ISP from slowing down non-paying traffic in order to boost more lucrative fast lanes. But he also seeks public comment on whether to pursue a stronger form of regulation, that of declaring the internet a public service and placing it under the same type of oversight as the telephone companies.

In the letter, the authors state that “if net neutrality is neutralized, the Internet will become like cable television. A few corporate gatekeepers such as Comcast will be allowed to decide what content consumers can access and on what terms. The danger is that blocking, discrimination and paid prioritization could occur.

“It puts decision-making and power over the internet in the hands of the few, especially those with money. The Internet is too vital to the free exchange of ideas to allow the few corporations that control Internet technology to edit the ideas and content that circulate there.

Signatories include an array of top showrunners, including John Wells, Matthew Weiner and Howard Gordon. They don’t explicitly urge the FCC to pursue regulation that would treat the Internet as a public service, but they do note that it worked “like phone lines.” Their biggest message is that the Internet has opened up new opportunities for content creators, giving them new options after a wave of media consolidation over the past two decades.

“There are new buyers for what we create as writers. But if this new competition is unfairly sidelined because the FCC adopts weak rules, rather than letting consumers decide what they preferneither innovation nor the best interests of society will be served,” letter says.

There was a flurry of lobbying with the FCC ahead of Thursday’s meeting, where commissioners will decide whether or not to place Wheeler’s proposal for formal public comment.

Earlier in the day, the public interest group Free Press published a letter of dozens of artists and musicians in which they argued that allowing paid prioritization would ultimately take “the power away from individual artists and creators” and interfere “with freedom of speech and expression.” Among those who signed were Mark Ruffalo, Fred Armisen, James Schamus, Michael Stipe and Oliver Stone.

While the backlash against Wheeler’s original proposal has stirred up the creative community, it also appears to have raised concerns among internet service providers that the FCC will respond to the outcry by ultimately pursuing a stronger regulatory hand. Some 28 CEOs of broadband internet companies urged the committee pursue a light regulation touch.

Classifying the Internet as a public service — called “Title II” in regulatory parlance — “would significantly distort future development and investment in tomorrow’s broadband networks and services. Among those who signed the letter were Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam. The full letter is here.

They warned that under “Title II,” “new service offerings, options, and features would be delayed or discontinued altogether. Consumers would face fewer choices and a less adaptive and less responsive Internet. An era of differentiation, innovation and experimentation would be replaced by a series of — Government can I? requests from American contractors. It cannot and must not become the American Internet of tomorrow.

The irony is that the last time the FCC drafted open internet rules, in 2010, it refused to regulate broadband as a public service and instead took a less restrictive approach that nevertheless prohibited ISPs Internet to block or discriminate against certain types of content. Yet Verizon has consistently challenged those rules in court, leading to the DC Circuit’s decision in January in which the most significant parts of the FCC’s Open Internet Rules were struck down. This is what has led to the latest debate as Wheeler pursues a new approach.