Preserving Consumer Rights In The Digital Age

Preserving the Free and Open and Innovative Nature of the Internet-- From P2P to Telephone/Cable Monopolies

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Recent Documents: PIRG joins Consumer Federation of America, Free Press and Consumers Union to release new report and announce a new campaign to preserve economic and consumer benefits of peer-to-peer file sharing. (22 March 05)

Background

This week (29 March 2005) the Supreme Court heard oral argument in two critical cases that could decide whether powerful corporations gain greater control over copyright and over the design and architecture of the Internet.

1) Peer-To-Peer: The first case, MGM Studios vs. Grokster, appears to be about copyright and fair use, and it is, but it is also about Internet architecture. Peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P) is an efficient and innovative part of Internet architecture that has already made it easier for consumers to communicate legal (public domain documents and music and film) ideas with each other directly. P2P is under major attack by major record companies and movie studios trying to create a “piracy panic." They are attacking P2P networks (such as Grokster, BitTorrent and Kazaa) through a series of anti-competitive judicial and legislative efforts intended to stifle innovations that threaten their own market domination. These ‘old economy’ industries feel threatened by individual citizens communicating directly with each other, sharing information that enables them to produce products they desire at the precise quantities they need and ever-lower prices. Hoolywood and the record companies seek a fundamental change in copyright law, which has never restricted new technologies. Most recently, in 1984, the Supreme Court said no when Hollywood tried to ban the VCR. Instead, copyright law has restricted unfair and illegal uses. Copyright law should protect intellectual property in a way that encourages new ideas but doesn't eliminate the fair use rights of consumers and doesn't stifle the technological innovation that brought us the printing press, the VCR, the I-Pod and the Internet itself.

2) Brand X and the future of the Internet. National Cable and Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services appears to be a technical case about the scope of FCC authority, but "This battle is over the future of the Internet," says FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.  Brand X is a small, southern California Internet Service Provider (ISP) that grew during the golden age of the Internet, when telephone companies were required by law to treat competitors fairly under FCC "telecommunications service" rules. Now, the cable companies providing broadband (not dial-up) assert that they should be subject to weaker "information service" rules that would allow them to discriminate against competitors, as they did when they rejected Brand X's request to hook up to broadband. At stake, says our colleague Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, is "whether the broadband Internet will preserve the dial-up Internet's longstanding open, diverse traditions, or whether it will evolve into something much closer to the closed platform of multichannel video."

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