Al Franken’s comical take on net neutrality

If you thought Al Franken would give up the laughs just because he sued his way into the Senate, think again.  The SNL alum has some of his best writing since the Stuart Smalley movie up on CNN.com, which gave him a platform to discuss internet regulation:

“Net neutrality” sounds arcane, but it’s fundamental to free speech. The internet today is an open marketplace. If you have a product, you can sell it. If you have an opinion, you can blog about it. If you have an idea, you can share it with the world.

And no matter who you are — a corporation selling a new widget, a senator making a political argument or just a Minnesotan sharing a funny cat video — you have equal access to that marketplace.

An e-mail from your mom comes in just as fast as a bill notification from your bank. You’re reading this op-ed online; it’ll load just as fast as a blog post criticizing it. That’s what we mean by net neutrality.

So here’s the internet we have: a free and open landscape where the merit of ideas matters more than how much money you have.  So we want to oppose net neutrality legislation and regulations that would change that landscape, right?

Apparently, not in Al Franken’s world.  Franken likens the evolution of telecommunications companies to his work on network television, and the media consolidation that went on in that medium.

Back in the 1990s, Congress rescinded rules that prevented television networks from owning their own programming. Network executives swore in congressional hearings that they wouldn’t give their own programming preferred access to the airwaves. They vowed access to the airwaves would be determined only by the quality of the shows.

I was working at NBC back then, and I didn’t buy that line one bit. Sure enough, within a couple of years, NBC was the largest supplier of its own prime-time programming.

There are two rebuttals to this.  First, networks buy programming from other providers all the time.  In fact, one of the biggest hits NBC had this decade, Scrubs, was produced by Disney ABC.  The second point is… well, how is that all-Universal-produced prime time lineup working out for NBC right now?

Today, if you’re an independent producer, it’s nearly impossible to get a show on the air unless the network owns at least a piece of it.

True, but has getting a show “on the air” ever been less relevant for success?  An enterprising content producer wouldn’t get the same audience online that he or she might get on a broadcast or cable network, but they aren’t being shut out of the media landscape.  If that’s the yardstick for success, wouldn’t we have to say the internet as it is works just fine?

Franken starts to make an analogy between internet services providers and cable companies – which is, incidentally, the argument on net neutrality’s side that makes the most sense.   But that assumes the market stays static – that is, that everyone continues to have a wire coming into their house, hooked up to their desktop computer, delivering the internet for the whole family to gather around.

But that isn’t where internet consumption is going.

At the risk of using myself as an example let me use myself as an example: in the morning, I usually check work and personal email on my Blackberry before rolling out of bed.  I check my home computer to see if the Yankees won the night before.  At work, I check sites like Politico routinely, and if an issue I’m working on is about to come up for a Congressional vote I might dial up CSPAN and watch online.  After work, I might go over to Starbucks with the laptop to work on a post or answer emails, using their WiFi.  Count ’em up – that’s four internet providers in a single day.  If I was traveling, there might be more connections – airports, hotels, even planes.   I dare you to try to keep content away from me.

The internet is not a utility like cable, it’s a communications infrastructure.  The providers can’t afford to simply keep content from you, because you can figure it out and change easier than you can if, for example, Comcast refuses to put the NFL Network on a basic cable tier.

Regulating the internet like telephones, or cable, or even broadcast radio and television doesn’t work because those are different technologies and consumed differently.  But don’t blame Franken’s lack of insight on the fact that he made his bones in old-school broadcast network television.  After all, he’s been trying to appeal to net neutrality cheerleader Google to wire Duluth for broadband.  Maybe he’s just trying to scratch their back in hopes they will return the favor later on.

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