The issue of "net neutrality" looming before Congress and the FCC seems an unlikely subject for a compelling film. But documentary-makers Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield found a theme that gives regulation of high-speed Internet providers some genuine drama: Big Brother vs. the little guy.
Their new film "Barbershop Punk," presented last week at the Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring, Md., sponsored by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel, tells the story of Robb Topolski, who helped put network neutrality on Washington's agenda.
Topolski is a former cop, grandfather and computer geek who spent his rainy days in Oregon downloading old videos of barbershop quartet music -- only those that were not copyrighted -- and making them available to friends through peer-to-peer file-sharing.
That was when he discovered, in early 2007, that his Internet service provider, Comcast, was blocking his P2P transmissions. Comcast officials told him they were only managing the flow of data on their broadband cable and would allow his files to be shared in periods of low traffic. But Topolski used his computer savvy to learn that his files were being blocked at all hours of the day.
Topolski posted his findings online and the word rapidly spread that some ISPs were selectively blocking the use of what was thought to be a free and wide open World Wide Web.
"In Internet terms, this was sort of the shot heard 'round the world," said Tim Karr, campaign director of the advocacy group Free Press and its SavetheInternet.com Coalition.
A colleague of Karr's at Free Press, Ben Scott, put it another way in the film: "Robb Topolski is the everyman who started one of the most important communications policy debates that's happened in Washington in a decade." [corrected from original]
Musician Damian Kulash noted that his rock band, OK Go, had made a video for about $5 and it "got downloaded a million times. The principle we love about the Internet is fairness and equality." But Topolski's experience made Web surfers wonder "what other voices were being stilled" by broadband providers like Comcast, he said.
Another musician, Washington, D.C., punk icon Ian MacKaye -- who founded Dischord Records and formed the bands Minor Threat, Fugazi and the Evens -- praised Topolski as a hero of the counterculture, willing to take on Big Brother to defend the rights of the little guy to use his computer however he chooses.
MacKaye describes the Internet as the ideal world of punk, or free space, "where new ideas get presented."
Topolski, who recently moved to Washington as "chief technologist" for the Open Technology Initiative of the New America Foundation and as a consultant to Free Press and another advocacy group, Public Knowledge, does not consider himself a hero. "What I did took no special bravery. I shed no blood; I paid no high price," he said. "I just saw a technical problem and characterized it and described it so people could solve it."
And attempt to solve it they did. The FCC opened an investigation and held hearings on whether ISPs were interfering with P2P file-sharing. In 2009, the agency proposed "network neutrality" rules to prevent telecommunications and cable broadband providers from blocking or degrading competing content and services on the Internet.
Telecom companies challenged the rules in court, and a federal appellate panel decided in April that the FCC didn't have sufficient authority to regulate broadband.
A month later, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski launched a proceeding to regulate broadband access providers under the section of communications law now used for telephone services. Also in May, key Democrats in both the House and Senate announced plans to attempt the first major rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act since 1996, with the issue of net neutrality certain to be addressed.
Genachowski, at a discussion during the Silverdocs festival, was emphatic about his determination to solve the net neutrality problem. "The core mission of the FCC in the 21st Century is promoting broadband, wired to wireless," he said.
"There's a growing consensus on the desirability of openness," Genachowski added. "We'll get there. ... If we get this right as a country, it will increase public media as an outlet for independent programming."