As one of the more far-flung members of my union -- the Writers Guild of America (WGA) -- I know how important it is to keep Internet service providers from censoring Internet content. I was able to feel fully informed and involved in our recent, successful strike from my home in the woods outside of Juneau.
Online forums and discussion groups, blogs, video clips, and up-to-the-minute notices were available to me 24/7. This wealth of information was not available on network or cable TV, as these media represented the opposing sides in our union's struggle for equity within our industry.
I could not help but contrast this unbounded Internet access with a situation I'd encountered not long before, when I spent a few months working on a film production in China. The government keeps a tight grip on the Internet, and reportedly employs a shadowy police task force of more than 30,000 members who monitor and censor anything they perceive as subversive.
In the U.S., it is commercial pressure that is threatening to restrict Internet content. Media companies can use their market power to censor what they disagree with or give preferential treatment to their favored content.
In the past 20 years we have seen a tremendous consolidation of media groups, until we are at the point where nearly all of the information and content we see on TV is controlled by seven giant conglomerates that act as producers, studios, distributors, and networks to everything that's on. These entities are not above restricting creativity, and further, political content, to better suit their own ends. This is not only unhealthy for those of us who work to create content; it is an even worse situation for the viewers who receive it.
Thank goodness for the Internet, where content creators can still retain control of quality and ownership. The Internet is more wide-ranging than TV ever was, featuring an unlimited smorgasbord of news, information, and entertainment, all available to an educated, intelligent citizenry who read and view content as they choose. And a great deal of it is free and on demand.
But for how much longer?
Even now, forces are amassing to block or discriminate against access to material on the Internet. Giant phone and cable companies like AT&T, Time Warner, and Comcast are working so they can charge Internet sites to distribute certain material over the Web. The more a site pays, the faster you may be able to see it.
Even more sinister, to my thinking, is a move on the parts of these companies toward censorship. A few years ago, AOL successfully blocked e-mails that mentioned www.dearaol.com, an advocacy Web site opposed to a (failed) pay-per-e-mail scheme. Comcast unilaterally and without consumer notification decided to block access to all BitTorrent computer access applications, a clear violation of the policy principles of the Federal Communications Commission. And last August, during a live Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert, AT&T muted Eddie Vedder's singing at a certain point so that Web viewers didn't hear the lyrics: "George Bush, leave the world alone; George Bush, find yourself a new home."
The answer to all of this is net neutrality. A simple principle that means internet providers, such as cable and phone companies, should not block or discriminate against legal content on the web. We need it -- perhaps especially in Alaska.
There are two important pieces of legislation in Washington that will codify a free Internet into the law of the land: House Resolution 5353 (the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act") and Senate Bill 215. As we citizens of Alaska face important decisions about who our representatives in Washington are to be, it is essential to know where the candidates stand on this legislation. Let's keep information coming to and from Alaska free.
Dave Hunsaker is a screenwriter, playwright and WGA member who lives in Juneau.
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