Do the iPhone Data Plans Offered by ATT Suggest a Dark Future for Indie Filmmakers?

In a provocative June 2nd, 2010 blogpost, Mark Lipsky makes a connection between the new data plans on the ATT wireless network and the looming battle over net neutrality.

The connection between what ATT is doing (charging iPhone customers who download a lot of data more) and what is about to happen to indie filmmakers (the death of our dream of reaching a worldwide audience online without having to pay vast sums to a middleman) may seem remote, but Mark Lipsky does a great job of explaining why indie filmmakers must become active in the fight for net neutrality now.

Like Mark Lipsky, I think you're making a mistake if you pay a premium based on your amount of Internet use. My position on this, like my position on net neutrality in general, may seem radical. But I'm not alone in seeing a connection between charges for bandwidth use online and a loss of fundamental freedoms. There is a growing concern among First Amendment scholars, digital media theorists and filmmakers that access to the Internet (and the ideas expressed there) is about to come under dangerous new levels of control by corporate interests. In our view, a premium for bandwidth is just the first step. We see paying more for bandwidth as part of a concerted effort by Internet providers that will eventually lead to the pipeline owners choosing the winners and losers on the Web. For the reasons I'll summarize below, I find myself aligned with those who think the Internet should be (as much as possible) accessible to all for the betterment of society.

The arguments in favor of net neutrality have their underpinning in the 18th Century. I'm certainly not the first to argue that certain resources (ideas, the air, a free press, and other things that benefit society), should not be made the exclusive property of a monied few.

"That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."

Corporate interests have been granted access to the airwaves and the right-of-way on the public roads and, after building out the infrastructure, they can charge customers for access to the Internet and cable TV. Because these corporations are using our property to deliver their services and because their service is at the heart of how information is spread in our 21st Century culture (in effect the service they provide is a utility that uses public property to deliver access to the world of ideas), we necessarily have a very large say in how these services must be provided. And I am not alone in worrying that corporate plans to restrict whose ideas will be carried (or to charge providers of certain ideas a premium for access to the American public), poses a serious threat to freedom of the press and the free expression of ideas.

But what about about the capital they've invested and the limited bandwidth?

You may feel that it's fair if you pay more when use a service more. But this is not how newspapers or television operates. I don't pay more for reading the whole paper, or more for HBO each month depending on how many films or what films I watch. If you think about it, there are strong First Amendment and public policy reasons for not letting the system deter creators or heavy users of ideas: Once they have paid for the service, how they use it (and how much they use it) is their business.

And the economic arguments in favor of charging more for "bandwidth use" are disingenuous. Internet providers are hugely profitable and, by their own account, their profits are not being affected by heavy use of broadband. In fact, Internet providers promised huge amounts of bandwidth when they received permission to dig up our streets. They have not delivered. Now they want to charge customers based on usage, not because they need to, but because they can.

I believe Thomas Jefferson (author of the quote above) would argue that Time Warner, ATT and Comcast can charge a fee for access (like charging a customer for buying a copy of the newspaper of his day), but charging more of the people who watch more content online (like an extra fee for reading the editorial page of a newspaper) would be an unacceptable and unjustifiable restraint on the free flow of ideas. And restricting access to the Internet (the main medium of expression of our day) based on content is profoundly un-American.

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