On the Internet, No One's Neutral

Because of the Internet, performing artists have more power than ever. They can create their own content and present it to millions of people for minimal cost. They can market themselves through their own websites, or through social-networking sites such as YouTube and MySpace. In short, the Internet allows artists to create and distribute projects outside the entertainment mainstream, if only as a means of one day securing a place within it.

There is concern, however, that this self-empowerment could become more costly or disappear altogether if legislation now under consideration in Congress does not safeguard high-quality Internet access at affordable prices. Others contend that these fears are unfounded, that they're similar to the hysteria that drove some people to stockpile bottled water and canned goods on the eve of Y2K. Nevertheless, whatever gets decided in Washington over the next several months could have an effect on the entertainment sectors of Los Angeles and New York.

As part of the debate over legislation to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996, lawmakers are fighting over an issue known as "Net neutrality." On one side are legislators who want to adopt measures that would, in their opinion, guarantee affordable, high-speed Internet access for everyone. Without such legislation, they say, start-up companies similar to the ones that fueled the Internet's growth could not get off the ground, much less compete with established businesses.

On the other side are legislators who resist certain laws that would, in their opinion, regulate the Internet with price controls and government-enforced standards. If the government were to play traffic cop on the information superhighway, they maintain, the innovation that helped pave it would grind to a halt.

In Congress, the issue has largely adhered to party lines: Most Democrats advance the former argument, most Republicans the latter. Outside the Capitol, however, allegiances defy expectations. Liberal advocacy organizations such as MoveOn.org have aligned with conservative groups like the Christian Coalition to push for legislation that would keep costs down. Michael McCurry, former White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton, is lobbying for the large Internet service providers (ISPs), such as AT&T and Verizon, which want the marketplace to determine pricing.

Broadband for the Masses

Without the Internet, Hollywood might never have heard of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, creators of The Blair Witch Project, who used the relatively new platform of the Web in 1999 to market their $35,000 film into a $250 million blockbuster. It was one of the seminal Web ad campaigns that changed the nature of movie marketing and turned the young filmmakers into indie darlings.

Nevertheless, Myrick indicated recently that he and Sánchez have mostly resisted the urge to enter the mainstream. "Blair Witch was such a huge phenomenon," he said. "In the years immediately after that, we got a lot of offers to do a lot of bad movies, but we were in no rush to brand ourselves as the everyday filmmakers."

Instead, Myrick went to work on his own projects. One was The Strand, a Web-based, serialized, cinéma vérité portrait of Venice, Calif., where yuppies and young Hollywood wannabes rub up against circus freaks, skateboarders, and mountebanks. He made seven episodes for a total of $200,000 and employed more than 20 actors.

Myrick said the site has received about 1,000 hits a day over the past six months. Those numbers aren't exceptional, but The Strand is only one piece of his plan to create a Web portal that will present other original programming. To do this, he is testing a system in which a third-party company buys the bandwidth he needs to transmit his content to the Web in return for a percentage of the site's advertising revenue — the money that will allow Myrick to give his content away for free.

If Net neutrality legislation fails to pass, Myrick said, the price of bandwidth could increase to the point where he and other independent producers have to charge for content — a tough sell on the Web, where people prefer to get stuff for free. His other concern is that Internet service providers that also produce content (such as Time Warner) would make access so expensive, it would keep independent producers offline lest they compete with the ISP's own movies, television shows, and Webcasts.

"The Internet democratizes the marketing medium," Myrick said. It also provides a means of distribution that 10 years ago didn't effectively exist. "In the past, you'd make a movie, go to the festivals, beat the bushes on the streets of Sundance, hope that you got a few awards, and you hoped that one of the five distributors out there would buy your damn movie."

The Internet, Myrick said, could allow independent filmmakers to skip all of that. He added that he's not averse to paying an additional tax or small percentage to the large ISPs for access, but he's concerned the prices the companies charge will become cost-prohibitive.

However, a Republican staffer in the Senate who is familiar with the draft legislation, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said such fears are unfounded: The legislation drafted by the majority party would not block consumers from accessing any legal content, the staffer said, and further, if media conglomerates were to abuse their competitive advantage, the federal government would step in to stop it.

A Multilane Superhighway?

Proponents of Net neutrality — as it is defined by consumer groups and new-media companies like Google, Yahoo, and Craigslist — want to ensure that all information transmitted on the Web is treated equally. In this view, a video (which takes up a lot of transmission space) and an email (which uses a tiny portion) should be guaranteed the same access to the same quality of service and rate of delivery.

Opponents say bandwidth capacity is shrinking and ISPs need to charge higher rates so they can expand the Web to handle increased traffic. Consumers who do not wish to pay the higher price can always use a slower lane.

This is what gets many consumer groups irate. "They will levy charges and provide a different level of service for some people, which smaller companies won't be able to afford," said Art Brodsky, the communications director for Public Knowledge, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates for openness of information. "They will change the character of the Internet, where before you didn't need anybody's permission to do anything."

Many Republicans and large ISPs counter that without higher charges, the Internet can't expand and thus bring new technology to market. "If you treat everything the same, it will put a damper on innovation," the Republican Senate staffer said. "If you treat everything the same, it just breaks down.... The marketplace will work itself out. But if it doesn't, we're standing by to make sure it does."

Both Sides of a 'Gigantic Cloud'

Tom Dunn, a theatre and video producer in New York, recently made two short films for a total of $1,000 and posted them for free on YouTube. By comparison, the cost to rent a 99-seat theatre in Manhattan is about $3,000 a week, and that doesn't include rehearsal space. Robert Goldenberg formerly broadcast high-school and minor-league sports on public access television on Long Island. He now does it on the Web, for one-tenth the cost.

Dunn, one of the four principals in Shiny Ball Productions, is concerned about what will happen if Net neutrality legislation fails to pass. "The Web is an unbelievable resource for my partners and I, who are trying to establish ourselves in this business and chart out a career," he said. "To be able to do that for little or no cost is unbelievable. If that changes, it will be that much harder for artists to break through."

A spokesperson for YouTube, however, said the situation isn't as dire as some artists claim. Requesting anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue, she said YouTube supports the principles behind Net neutrality; a company such as hers might not have been launched if bandwidth costs were significantly higher than they are now.

Nevertheless, she maintained it is far too early to say what higher costs would mean for artists such as Brooke Brodack, Little Loca (aka Stevie Ryan), and others who have leveraged exposure on YouTube to attract attention and deals from the entertainment industry.

"It's all a big gigantic cloud," said the YouTube spokesperson, who would not speculate about whether the company would charge users to post videos if bandwidth costs were to rise. Furthermore, she emphasized it was faulty reasoning to assume that a jump in the price of bandwidth would prevent future artists from becoming the next Brodack, who recently signed a development deal with Carson Daly Productions. "That's taking it too far right now," she said.

Paul Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a lobbying group for the cable and phone companies, said that, ultimately, good work will find its way to the marketplace and be rewarded in kind. "It is always about content," he said. "The one who is the most clever will win in the end."

Myrick agrees that content is king, but for him distribution is the coin of the realm. Turning the Internet into a possible toll road, he said, doesn't sit well with him.

"The fact that it exists will segregate society, and we should be trying to avoid that segregation," he said. "At the same time, I think it's completely reasonable that these companies should be reimbursed.... I hope costs are affordable for me."