Labor side argues to preserve open access

The divide between Hollywood labor and management over the issue of Net neutrality grew wider as two voices from the talent side urged Congress to preserve the open access of the Web.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday, Writers Guild of America West topper Patric Verrone and thesp Justine Bateman described the Internet as the only remaining open market for truly independent creators. Both emphasized the need for Net neutrality — the notion that Internet and broadband service providers should be mandated to provide consumers with equal and unfettered access to all legal Web sites and online content.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America opposes any attempt to enforce Net neutrality, claiming it would ultimately prevent broadband service providers from policing their pipes for pirated content.

Bateman acknowledged the need — including her own interest as an actress — in stopping online piracy of movies and TV shows. But an Internet controlled by large service providers that theoretically could slow or block certain traffic depending on their financial interests would not allow independent artists to compete, she said.

For example, Bateman co-founded a Web site for distributing content directly online. A deal between a major studio and a broadband service provider could block access to any sites the studio deemed a competitor. Net neutrality would prohibit such practices, proponents argue.

Broadband service providers argue that Net neutrality regulation of any kind isn’t necessary because users would simply drop any service that discriminated.

Verrone claimed that the same media consolidation forces that have diminished opportunities for independents in Hollywood are now threatening online opportunities.

“I started working in the entertainment industry 22 years ago,” Verrone said. “Almost 30 separate companies independently produced and distributed television on the ‘new media’ of cable TV. Today we are down to about seven vertically integrated conglomerates, controlling not only cable TV, but also broadcast, film and even news.”

“The axiom in Hollywood is that content is king, but those who control access to the king, control the kingdom,” Verrone continued. “Because of federal regulations — or lack thereof — that control is in the hands of neither the consumer nor the content creators, but the distributors.”

The Internet “holds incredible potential to resurrect a vibrant industry of independent creators,” but the future of that potential lies in Net neutrality, Verrone said.

Net neutrality has split Congress along party lines: With some exceptions, Democrats favor Net neutrality while Republicans oppose it. Creative talent has generally supported Net neutrality.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin, who also testified at the Senate hearing, repeated his belief that no Net neutrality rules are necessary. Martin said the commission has adopted a set of “principles” that outline acceptable broadband service practices and that the FCC has authority to enforce them should consumers lodge any complaints.

Cable giant Comcast has said those principles are only a policy statement and do not carry “binding legal obligations.”

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