Commentary

Writers Guild, Others Wary Of Web Fast Lane

The Writers Guild of America East, which has long supported net neutrality principles, has now joined the roster of groups expressing concern about a proposal put forward by Google and Verizon to allow broadband providers to prioritize certain material.

"We applaud the Commission for recognizing that broadband providers can evade the basic principles of net neutrality by creating so-called 'specialized services' as part of their broadband offerings and discriminating in favor of content provided through those services," the organization says in a new filing with the Federal Communications Commission. "This is the equivalent of stating that all of our nation's highways are public, open to everyone and subject to neutral traffic laws -- except those highways we have deemed to be private. The owners of those private highways would be free to discriminate in favor of the most profitable traffic, leaving the rest of us in the slow lanes."

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The Writers Guild submitted its comments in response to the FCC's request for input about the key aspects of Google and Verizon's neutrality proposal -- whether neutrality rules should apply to wireless broadband providers and whether companies should be allowed to create fast lanes for specialized services. Google and Verizon don't define such services, but say they could include telemedicine, distance learning and entertainment.

The Writers Guild says its members, who write for film, TV, radio and the Web, could be forced to "abandon their independent projects and to sign on with the mega-studios" if ISPs are able to offer better service to big corporations. "Permitting broadband providers to discriminate amongst content, to decide which programs get priority distribution, would transform the open architecture of the internet into a slightly upgraded version of today's television and film industry," the organization argues.

Free Press, another neutrality proponent, submitted a letter reiterating its stance that an exception to neutrality principles for "specialized services" is unnecessary.

But, the group says, if the FCC intends to allow prioritized delivery of specialized services, the carve-out should be very narrow. "Such services should not be duplicative of Internet access services, should not replicate functionality currently available on the open Internet, and should not thereby encourage a substantial migration of content and investment away from the open Internet," the group says.

Meanwhile the Open Internet Coalition -- an umbrella group that lists Google as a supporter -- says it's difficult to take a stand on prioritization for specialized services when no one is quite sure what they are. "The record on this issue ... does not provide sufficient clarity as to the definition of specialized services," the coalition says. "The appropriate regulatory response, of course, depends significantly on such matters -- for example, the policy approach may be very different if specialized services were limited to services like telemedicine than if the services in this category competed directly with content, applications, and services offered by unaffiliated parties."

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