Net neutrality will prove as evil as the VCR

Everything old is new again, and the same tired threats will prove to be false once more

An interesting and melancholy event is taking place not far away from me. An honest-to-goodness independent movie rental store is closing its doors with much fanfare and a going-out-of-business sale.

This is a small business that has been around almost since the advent of the VCR and rolled right through the dawn of the Internet and into the era of widespread streaming content -- by renting videos. If you wanted to watch a movie, you drove down to the store, hoped there was a copy on the shelf, rented it on the contract you’d signed possibly decades ago, and returned it within a day or two.

At this point in time, that method of entertainment delivery seems as antiquated as neighborhood milk delivery and honest politicians. OK, maybe the latter never existed, but there was a time when we had a reasonable belief that they did. Of course, they’ve since dispensed with that charade altogether when they legalized the purchase of elections. But I digress.

What was once the absolute cutting edge in home entertainment is notable now only for the fact that the very last of the breed are finally dying out, abandoned completely by the younger generation, and overcome by the convenience and low cost of delivering the same- or better-quality content in greater quantity over the Internet. There are dozens of lost rentals in every gift of an Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, or Netflix subscription. These shops had no illusions about where it was all headed. They knew the clock was ticking ever faster and played it out until the end. It’s simply the way it works.

But back around the time when the store was brand new and people were spending thousands of dollars on huge new VCRs that were roughly the size and shape of an Ottoman, a vicious battle was brewing that eventually went all the way to the U.S. Congress. You see, the very same industry that shattered box office records with the first half-billion-dollar opening weekend for a single film was moving heaven and earth to snuff out home video. The movie companies were ruthless, spending substantial sums trying to kill the VCR, not only legally, but also socially.

I trot out a quote from time to time to underscore the point that I speak no hyperbole on this matter. When testifying to Congress in 1982, then MPAA President Jack Valenti uttered the following statement:

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.

As we all know, the MPAA lost that battle and has sadly settled for decades of exponentially increasing growth and profits from all angles. No matter how loudly it warned us all of impending doom, it was thoroughly wrong.

Such is the case today, though the players and devices have changed. Where we once had VCRs, we now have streaming devices. Where we once had trips to the store, we now have Internet connections and ISPs. Where we once had the Big Three television networks, we now have a large and growing collection of companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu that are not only carrying a significant array of licensed content, but are also producing their own compelling original content completely outside the realm of traditional broadcast and film.

This content is also untethered. We don’t need boat-anchor VCRs; we can stream right to our phones and tablets wherever we happen to be. Right alongside all of this new technology and expansion, we see the same elderly canards bandied about by some of the same organizations, now joined by new major players such as the big wired and mobile ISPs.

You see, the sky is falling again, like it was in 1982. The Boston Strangler, that great boogeyman of our -- cough -- fragile entertainment industry, is now threatening the big ISPs and mobile carriers too. All of the wailing and moaning might as well be a recording because it’s all the same in the end.

When we see significant new fines levied against mobile carriers for bad data practices and attempts to create an unholy alliance between the two largest ISPs thwarted, it means these industries will have to come to terms with a new reality. The ISPs and mobile carriers will have to face the fact that they might have to provide the service they’re selling with some consistency, and they might perhaps encounter competition along the way.

This is clearly a very good thing. We all know that if they had their way, the Boston Strangler would be on their payroll as a lobbyist.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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