Tuesday, May 20, 2008

FMC Executive Director Ann Chaitovitz in Billboard

This week, Billboard Magazine ran a Commentary by FMC Executive Director Ann Chaitovitz on the importance of Net Neutrality to the music community. We're pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the issue in such a well-read publication.

A Wide Net
By Ann Chaitovitz

In a concert last summer that was netcast by AT&T, Pearl Jam performed a section of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” during an extended jam on their own song, “Daughter.” When singer Eddie Vedder gave the lyrics a political twist and sang, “George Bush leave this world alone / George Bush find yourself another home,” AT&T cut the sound, unbeknownst to the band and attendees. This was not just censorship but a warning beacon of what will happen in a world without net neutrality. If network operators control all the content that passes through their pipes, any of us could be silenced on the whims of a few powerful corporations.

Net Neutrality first became an issue in 2005, stemming from the Supreme Court’s Brand X decision, which ruled that the FCC was allowed to reclassify the internet as an information service, as opposed to a telecommunications service. That left open just what type of oversight the FCC would apply. Cable companies and network operators saw this as an opportunity to earn new revenue and to keep competing services from using their infrastructure.

Net neutrality is the principle that protects the open Internet. It means that everyone can access the lawful content of their choice. It also gives musicians the chance to reach their fans directly, without interference from gatekeepers and middlemen. This could change if companies like AT&T and Verizon have their way and decide who and what we listen to. Many artists could lose an important connection to their fans, while listeners might find their access to their favorite acts severely compromised.

Recently, people have confused net neutrality with the separate and distinct issue of copyright enforcement. Net neutrality does not prevent network operators from using tools to prevent piracy. Nothing prevents network operators from blocking access to infringing content. Net neutrality only preserves the public’s access to lawful content, applications and online services, which gives network operators latitude to combat illegal filesharing.

Net neutrality also permits reasonable network management. For example, network operators could prioritize voice services over streaming services over downloading services in order to ensure the proper functioning of the network. What they would not be permitted to do, however, is to prioritize their own voice service over that of their competitors.

The current structure of the web lets the biggest companies and the smallest bedroom recording artist exist on an equal technological playing field. But the big telecom and cable companies want to charge content providers a fee for the faster delivery of their sites.

Imagine logging on to your favorite band’s website, only to have it take forever to load on your computer because they couldn’t to afford (or didn’t want) to pay a toll. Or maybe you’re simply redirected to that network operator’s own music store, or to iTunes or Amazon — companies that can afford to cut deals with the network operators – where the artist has to share the revenue and takes home less. Services that pay the network operators would likely subtract their increased costs from the content provider’s share of the revenue or pass the cost on to the consumer, which would present a new hurdle on the road to a legitimate digital music economy. Today’s bands, big or small, deserve the right to do business on their terms, and fans deserve to make their own choices of where and how to access legitimate content. That’s why net neutrality is so important.

We can’t just hand the Internet over to a few big corporations, because they often only have their own interests at heart. Recently, Comcast blocked access to the legal, licensed audiovisual delivery service called Vuze — which competes with the company’s own AV offerings — simply because Vuze utilizes peer-to-peer technology to distribute its licensed content. Net neutrality would prohibit network operators from interfering with the transmission of lawful content and permit the growth of new business models.

Content creators, producers and advocates who are concerned about piracy but also understand the consequences of letting a few corporations control distribution — Future of Music Coalition, the Center for Creative Voices in Media, the Independent Film and Television Alliance and the American Association of Independent Music — support net neutrality because they know what’s at stake. You can’t safeguard artists by blocking or limiting their ability to participate in an open marketplace.

Musicians and labels are making their voices heard through Future of Music Coalition’s Rock the Net campaign, which now boasts more than 800 members, including Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and Kronos Quartet. A compilation CD, featuring Aimee Mann, Wilco, They Might Be Giants, Bright Eyes, the Wrens, Portistatic and more, will be released in July. We applaud the commitment of these talented artists to such an important cause.

We can’t allow bottlenecks to determine the flow of creativity. Participating in a legitimate digital marketplace is the right of all citizens, including musicians. It’s a right that needs to be preserved.


Richard Bennett said...

Your editorial has a number of significant factual errors, of which the following is the most outrageous: "Recently, Comcast blocked access to the legal, licensed audiovisual delivery service called Vuze — which competes with the company’s own AV offerings — simply because Vuze utilizes peer-to-peer technology to distribute its licensed content."

Comcast did not block access to Vuze. It works fine on the Comcast network and always has. Vuze petitioned the FCC for a rule that would define network management in some specific terms, and did not themselves allege any blocking.

Your clams is a huge distortion of the facts, and should be corrected both here and in Billboard. Internet regulation is an important issue, and it should not be guided by blatant falsehoods.

FMC said...

Thanks for commenting, Richard.

You’re right that you can run the Vuze client on the Comcast network. However, the service’s functionality was allegedly limited by Comcast’s interference with the BitTorrent protocol.

FMC is concerned that if the network operators interfere with lawful content on legal applications, musicians and entrepreneurs could lose access to the legitimate digital music marketplace. This could hinder artists and other content providers’ efforts to reach potential audiences and would also have a chilling effect on innovation.

In their filing with the FCC, Vuze referred to the effect Comcast’s earlier practice of delaying BitTorrent traffic had on users of their service:

“Vuze, the leading destination for downloading and viewing licensed and self-published high-resolution video content online, has detected clandestine attempts to degrade and, in some cases, block its users’ traffic by at least one network operator, Comcast. . . .

. . . .Independent content creators who happen to be Comcast subscribers are not able to easily upload content to Vuze via the Comcast broadband network, frustrating their ability to distribute and possibly monetize their content. Comcast’s actions thereby limit the amount and diversity of content available to consumers and the opportunity for innovation, creativity and free speech for content publishers."

FMC is also concerned about piracy and recognizes that the ISPs and content providers have a right to explore tools to combat illegal filesharing. But we also know how important it is to let creators legitimately distribute their work in new and innovative ways. All musicians deserve to participate in a legitimate digital music marketplace, and net neutrality would ensure this remains possible.

Richard Bennett said...

You're right that Vuze did allege some theoretical harm to consumers, as you mention, but none to Vuze.

But this is really grasping at straws. If your members want to use Vuze to distribute their music, they're going to first upload a copy to the actual Vuze server (using a file transfer protocol such as ftp.) This is process is not and never has been "blocked." From there the Vuze system will see to it that it's distributed wherever it needs to go. There has never been any impairment in this process, so there is no reason to allege that Comcast's network management practices hurt your members. In fact, it's ridiculous.

Similarly, the infamous Pearl Jam censorship issue arose out of a concert that AT&T had paid Pearl Jam to distribute, it wasn't just random stuff floating around AT&T's network. So just as you have control over the content of your website, AT&T had an employee who didn't like Eddie Vedder's political views and censored them. This is not a "network neutrality" problem, it's a case of a company who's paid for some content modifying the content to suit his wishes. If you ban that sort of thing, you can forget about using the Internet as a way to sell music.

I think you're chasing the wrong bogeyman here. Piracy is costing your members money, traffic management is not. The regulations you support will hurt musicians, not help them.

FMC said...

To clarify, FMC is not a membership organization. We seek to identify issues of concern to the music community, and collect and analyze a diversity of opinion on many subjects.

To us, Vuze's descriptions of "clandestine attempts to degrade and, in some cases, block its users’ traffic" seems pretty clear, but you are free to interpret it otherwise.

Piracy is a separate issue from net neutrality. Net neutrality would still allow network operators and content providers to explore their options to combat illegal filesharing. This could mean "filtering," or perhaps another technology.

We're not supporting any specific piece of legislation, but rather pointing out that legislation is likely necessary to ensure that the internet remains an open platform for innovation, creativity and commerce. That said, there is nothing in the currently proposed bills that would hinder ISP and content holders' efforts to combat piracy.

The point is, we need to ensure a baseline of access for content providers and users, so that a legitimate digital music marketplace can truly flourish.

Richard Bennett said...

I think the point is this: before you advocate for regulatory or legislative solutions to alleged problems, you need to demonstrate that the problems are real. For an organization that claims to speak for musicians, this should be pretty easy: find a musician who has been prevented from distributed his or her product as a direct result of the actions of Comcast or any other ISP. This would be an abuse, and would warrant some sort of government action. But you haven't offered any such evidence.

On the contrary, what you have offered as proof is one instance of an operator censoring content that it paid to distribute, not something that was merely transiting its system, and an allegation that something was happening that might have an effect on some un-named producer.

In fact the Vuze claim is grossly misleading. They found that the number of connections between a given source and multiple consumers was reduced. They did not find "blocking", or outright prevention of content flow. And what they found had nothing to do with the prevention of publication.

Kindly show me a musician who has been harmed by Comcast, or admit that you can't.

(Cross-posting this comment on my blog.)

Daniel J. Doughty said...

Piracy is costing your members money, traffic management is not.

Richard, that's an opinion, not a fact. When artists can earn 25 cents a CD via traditional distribution or earn $2-3 a CD via donating their music to the community and receiving donations, Comcast is absolutely costing musician's money.

And your comments don't address any of the not for profit organizations, such as the world's largest broadcasting corporation(http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/purpose/what.shtml), the BBC. It's difficult to pirate what is given away. Slowing down the transmission of good television programming that is frequently instructional in content is tantamount to asking a school teacher to slow their speech down because they're being heard in the hallway and that bothers you.

When is Comcast going to admit that this "reasonable traffic management" is costing so much in reputation that it's completely ridiculous? Comcast continually receives more and more negative publicity, such as this week when it was discovered that P2P traffic was not only being slowed down during 'peak hours' as originally claimed but is in fact being blocked 24 hours a day(http://gizmodo.com/390947/comcast-blocks-bittorrent-traffic-24-hours-a-day). That's a 2 minute spot on the news that cost the company millions.

And with an obvious strong bid by the Democrats for the presidency this year, regulation is likely on the way. The only option available to Comcast at this time is to stop this silly practice, apologize and move on. To invest heavily in attempting to over ride public sentiment is to throw good money after bad.

Anonymous said...

I think the point is this: before you advocate for regulatory or legislative solutions to alleged problems, you need to demonstrate that the problems are real.

Sure, let's allow ISP's to go ahead and tamper with the underpinnings of the internet and we'll just wait and see if it screws things up, and then deal with it.

Horrible idea.

Zippy the giver said...

It seems to me that comcast has advocated policies now and in the past that, while in the short run seem to give them advantage over customers and competitors, in the long run make them advocate their ability to manipulate key segments of the production output side of artist's works such as patenting the entire digital live recording production process when the technology existed for a decade before.
Why would Comcast do that?