WASHINGTON--The Recording Industry Association of America's chief voiced skepticism on Tuesday about the need for Net neutrality rules, but warned that the government may need to step in if Internet service providers don't become more proactive in fighting digital piracy.
The House of Representatives subcommittee hearing was further evidence that the now years-old debate over Net neutrality is taking on a new dimension, in which concerns about Internet piracy are entering the debate. Net neutrality, of course, refers to the idea that network operators should be barred from discriminating against or prioritizing Internet content that travels on their pipes.
RIAA CEO Mitch Bainwol told the panel that a Net neutrality bill proposed this year by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) isn't all bad because it views "unlawful" content, such as copyright-infringing material, as unworthy of protection by Internet service providers. He said he hopes that approach may even help to pressure ISPs to "focus on the piracy problem."
Still, Bainwol said he strongly prefers that the entertainment industry and Internet service providers work together on the piracy question in an unregulated fashion.
"My fear is that legislation will take time," Bainwol said. "We have a problem that is right now."
If private sector action doesn't pan out, Bainwol said the RIAA would return to the committee for its "help" on the matter.
Markey attempted to reassure copyright holders that his bill will do nothing to hamper ISPs' ability to block "unlawful" pirated content, vehemently taking issue with any suggestions to the contrary.
"This whole idea that this legislation helps piracy is 100 percent wrong," Markey said. "It's a red herring. We should put an aquarium out here because there are so many red herrings floating around to mislead about what the intent of Net neutrality is."
The bill that Markey introduced in February would enshrine certain Internet nondiscrimination principles into law--namely, that the government should adopt and enforce "baseline protections to guard against unreasonable discriminatory favoritism for, or degradation of, content by network operators based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet."
As in the past, the effort is mostly supported by Democrats, although Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) is also a co-sponsor. They argue that it's necessary to keep the Internet open and democratic. Some Republicans on Tuesday argued new laws are unnecessary because of a lack of visible discrimination problems by Internet service providers--because they could harm ISPs' antipiracy efforts.
A 1998 law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, says Web hosts and ISPs aren't generally liable for infringing activity on the part of their users, provided that they don't condone infringement, that they remove infringing material when notified, and that they aren't deriving financial benefit from it. But some ISPs, such as AT&T, are exploring ways to filter their networks for pirated content, even though they arguably aren't legally required to do so.
"It would be remiss for us as a body to interfere in these efforts," said Mary Bono Mack (D-Calif.), the widow of singer Sonny Bono. "I think this bill would do that."
Bainwol, for his part, said he was "heartened" to see that Markey's bill recognizes "that Internet freedom isn't synonymous with a Wild West in which the taking of our property is accepted or, at best, ignored." But he worried that the bill could unwittingly limit forms of "network management" used to police networks for copyright infringement.
His remarks are similar to those made earlier this year by the Motion Picture Association of America, which argued that attempts to prohibit network operators from discriminating against or prioritizing Internet content could limit their ability to police their networks for copyright infringement. Recently, the cable industry, which has long opposed Net neutrality regulations, raised similar concerns.
Steve Peterman, co-creator and executive producer of the hit children's series Hannah Montana, said he strongly condemns piracy, but he argued the Net neutrality bills put forth by Markey and the senators would do nothing to harm those efforts. Peterman spoke on behalf of the Writers Guild of America, which says Net neutrality laws will ensure a diversity of new content can surface without interference from big-media "gatekeepers."
"We don't want (the piracy issue) to be an excuse for limiting our access to the Internet as a means of communicating with an enormous new audience," Peterman said.
The event marked the second hearing on Net neutrality legislation in two weeks. Senate Democrats have also renewed their call for the antidiscrimination rules, with a particular focus on whether the Federal Communications Commission has the necessary authority to take action against network operators found to be interfering unreasonably with their customers' network traffic.
Comcast, which is under investigation by the FCC for its handling of BitTorrent file-sharing traffic, was the focus of a large chunk of the Senate hearing but didn't attract as much attention at Tuesday's House event.
Republicans and some Democrats have long argued that Net neutrality regulations are unnecessary and will stifle the growth of new broadband networks. But Pickering, the bill's co-sponsor, said his measure is necessary because of contentions by Comcast and others that the FCC doesn't have the power to enforce its own broadband principles, which say consumers have the right to access the lawful Internet content and applications of their choice.
"I think this legislation is very helpful," Pickering said, "in that it says very clearly we will codify these principles."