Maybe the Internet IS Just a Dumb Pipe

“Content is king” was the catch-phrase of the 1990s and the heady (headless really) days of the Dot Com bubble.  And although that stopped being a slogan with the resurgence of Web 2.0, it was still true.  Content was still king except the would-be tech giants figured out that they didn’t need to create content but instead just make someone else’s content available.  Whether these companies had any right to exploit said content did not matter since the telecom giants who preceded them had conveniently negotiated a liability shield (DMCA §512) for copyright infringement before anyone quite realized how a YouTube could become a massive infringement machine that prints money for its owners.

When rights holders complained that these platforms were infringers (or at least beneficiaries of infringement), the answer was always some variation on the themes …  It’s not us.  Its the users.  We don’t control what gets uploaded. We’re just a neutral platform.  And so on.  Thanks to that liability shield negotiated by Verizon, AT&T, et al in 1998, Google and the other major platforms got away with the circular logic that “the internet” is simultaneously “just a dumb pipe” and also a network of such inestimable value that no cyber-policy may be altered—other than, of course, by Google and the other major platforms.  They are at liberty to alter the internet all they want because they do so many nice things for us—and all for free!

In 2012, concurrent with the not-so-grassroots defeat of SOPA/PIPA, Google’s lobbying expenditures went from negligible to competing among the top five in the nation; and the major platforms also formed the Internet Association to advocate policy in its interests.  That’s business as usual, and industries have every right to form such organizations, but this new coalition of tech giants was also contemporaneous with the anti-SOPA narrative in which the Motion Picture Association of America a) had allegedly tried to force legislation that would “break the internet”; and b) represented “old thinking” about content, copyright, and digital-age piracy. 

Let us now leap over the past seven years to the present—a time when the major internet platforms—most demonstrably Facebook—have revealed many of the darker consequences of their hands-off, disrupt-culture approach to platform moderation.  Amid this still-developing narrative, came the big news last month—though it should not have been the least bit surprising—that Netflix would leave the Internet Association and join the MPAA.  Because content is still king.

As described in my post of October 2015, Netflix is not an internet company; it’s a motion picture studio that happens to distribute via the internet.  New opportunities to measure viewer data notwithstanding, the simple reality is that the more “tech” companies invest in original programming, the more they will naturally find common ground with the policy interests of the MPAA et al. In that regard, a January article in Variety speculates that Amazon—with its slate of multi-award-winning shows—could be next to join the big studios.  Either way, the swing of this pendulum does suggest a new premise:  that perhaps the internet industry does not have (to use the technical term) jack-shit to teach content creators about copyright or piracy—and let’s not even talk about whatever the hell the “economics of abundance” means.

In fact, if one looks at YouTube’s Copyright Match response to the realization that their own creators do not like having their videos infringed by other YouTubers, maybe the “new” industry actually has something to learn from the “old” one about protecting creative works.  Meanwhile, as the traditional media/entertainment companies continue to migrate toward streaming and other contemporary models of distribution, they will surely learn much from a pioneer like Netflix.  But this will not change the raw investments of time, talent, labor, and money required to produce new works, and so it will not diminish any producers’ interest in protecting and enforcing copyrights.  

In this context, I am reminded of a story from January of last year in which songwriter/performer Blake Morgan found himself having to explain to Spotify executives that music was in fact the product they were selling.  One might think this is not a very high mental hurdle to clear, but Morgan describes that some in the meeting became rather heated in their defense that, no, Spotify was the product.  Because, of course, we launch that app just to look at the interface?

Time will tell if there will be any significant future defections from the Internet Association, though its members are not without vested interest in a range of policy areas.  But to the extent that union was formed in response to proposals like SOPA and to advocate against copyright enforcement, the departure of members who are now major rights holders serves as a long-overdue reminder about the difference between creative works and the technological means to access or distribute those works.  As the platform owners love to repeat in their own defense against liability, the internet doesn’t produce anything; it’s just a dumb pipe.

© 2019, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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