September 14, 2011

Call To Action: Support Free Speech & Net Neutrality


In 2007, barbershop quartet enthusiast Robb Topolski was trying to find a way to easily distribute copies of his vast music collection with others sharing his passion. The Portland Oregon technology geek decided to use a peer to peer (p2p) file sharing program, because the technology would allow him to scale his project, and distribute his music to a wide audience.

After downloading and installing the p2p file-sharing client BitTorrent on his personal computer, he was having trouble uploading his digital files. The digital files he wanted to share weren’t hampered by any copyright claims, because it was music published long ago, and was in the public domain. After many failed attempts, he tracked down the problem, and discovered that his Internet Service Provider (ISP) was blocking his uploads.

Robb didn’t know what to do, and posted his findings on an tech-centric internet message board. Some free speech and special interest advocates and attorneys read about Robb’s experience, and assisted him in filing a complaint about the ISP’s conduct with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

In 2008 the FCC ruled that the ISP interfered with Robb’s traffic, and other subscriber’s traffic as well, and ordered the ISP to change their ways.

Every ISP implicitly understands that they are a corporation known as a ‘common carrier’, that is licensed by the federal government to provide communications services. They also know that their business conduct is governed by rules and regulations that are enforced by the FCC. The ISP was arbitrarily censoring and blocking traffic on the information super-highway, and singled out p2p traffic, and assumed that any customer sharing a file using BitTorrent, was violating copyright law, and should therefore be blocked.

Comcast is the big bad wolf in this case, and they are not the first company, and unlikely to be the last, when it comes to censoring and controlling internet access. Free speech and civil liberty advocates have been campaigning with Christian organizations to promote net neutrality.

Network neutrality guarantees that there is no restriction on internet access or content, or the websites that one chooses to visit. That sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? Except that Comcast appealed the FCC decision. When the FCC announced that they would be issuing regulations to codify net neutrality, ISP’s went to Federal Court to stop the FCC. The Court threw the lawsuits out, because the net neutrality rules weren’t established yet. Be assured that you will start hearing a lot about net neutrality, because the FCC intends to publish their new regulations in the near future, and the issue at the heart of this matter is free speech. While ISP’s will try to characterize this differently, it’s an issue that will affect everyone, and any attempt to limit or reduce access to information is abridging our right to free speech.

Documentary filmmakers Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield intended to make a film about the music industry in 2007, and after attending the FCC hearing where Robb Topolski testified about Comcast blocking his internet access, they decided to tell his story instead. Their award winning film “Barbershop Punk” looks at Robb’s challenges, within the context of net neutrality, and examines what it takes to challenge these corporate behemoths.

Because of the media companies that this film is challenging, they have been unable to secure a theatrical release. With Internet Service Providers not only providing the “pipes” to access online content, many of them are also in the content business. That’s ironic isn’t it? Roadrunner/Time Warner and Warner Brothers, Comcast and NBC/Universal Studios, are the first 2 that come to mind.

The filmmakers turned to kickstarter.com to help kick start a theatrical release. Kickstarter says that they are the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world. While I can’t verify the veracity of that statement, creative individuals and companies that are start-ups, and looking for seed money to kick start the fulfillment of their dream, turn to kickstarter. Kickstarter places a limit on the amount of time an appeal is listed on its site, and if the donations do not meet the amount of seed money sought by the applicants, the money is not distributed.

This is an issue that I feel is very important for our democracy. I haven’t seen the film, and only know what I’ve read online. I think it’s pathetic that traditional film distribution methods are not available for this film. If you believe in free speech and want unfettered access to the internet, join me in making a donation to kick start the filmmakers dream. They have 15 days to raise $16,242.00.

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