As the FCC prepares new rules of the road for the Internet, more than 240 TV showrunners and creators have signed on to a Writers Guild of America West letter urging the commission to avoid regulations that would allow content companies to pay for speedier delivery 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 outlined a proposal last month that would allow for certain forms of paid prioritization, and it was met by a storm of protest from public interest groups and some Capitol Hill lawmakers who see it as watering down the concept of net neutrality, and opening the door to a two-tiered Internet, in which media conglomerates can pay ISPs for “fast lanes” to consumers.
Wheeler has since revised his proposal, in an effort to prohibit an ISP from slowing non-paying traffic in order to boost the more lucrative fast lanes. But he also is seeking public comment on whether to pursue a stronger form of regulation, that of declaring the Internet a utility and putting it under the same kind of oversight as phone companies.
In the letter, the writers argue that “if Net Neutrality is neutered, 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.
“This 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 companies who control Internet technology to edit the ideas and content that flow through it.”
The signers include an array of top showrunners, including John Wells, Matthew Weiner and Howard Gordon. They do not explicitly urge the FCC to pursue regulation that would treat the Internet like a utility, but they note that it has worked “like the 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 in the past two decades.
“There are new buyers for what we as writers create. But if this new competition is unfairly pushed aside because the FCC adopts weak rules, rather than allowing consumers to decide what they prefer, neither innovation nor the best interests of society will be served,” the letter says.
There has been a flurry of lobbying of the FCC before Thursday’s meeting, where the commissioners will decide whether to place Wheeler’s proposal out for formal public comment.
Earlier today, the public interest group Free Press released a letter from dozens of artists and musicians in which they argued that allowing for paid prioritization would ultimate shift “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 initial proposal has stirred the creative community, it also appears to have triggered concern among Internet providers that the FCC will respond to the outcry by ultimately pursuing a stronger regulatory hand. Some 28 CEOs from broadband Internet companies urged the commission to pursue a light regulatory touch.
Classifying the Internet as a public utility — called “Title II” in regulatory parlance — “would greatly distort the future development of, 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 complete letter is here.
They warned that under “Title II,” “new service offerings, options and features would be delayed or altogether foregone. Consumers would face less choice, and a less adaptive and responsive Internet. An era of differentiation, innovation and experimentation would be replaced with a series of — Government may I? requests from American entrepreneurs. That cannot be, and must not become, the U.S. Internet of tomorrow.”
The irony is that that last time that the FCC wrote open Internet rules, in 2010, it declined to regulate broadband as a utility and instead pursued a less restrictive approach that nevertheless prohibited Internet providers from blocking or discriminating against certain types of content. Yet Verizon still challenged those rules in court, leading to the D.C. Circuit decision in January in which the most significant parts of the FCC’s open Internet rules were struck down. That is what led to the latest debate as Wheeler pursues a new approach.