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Consumer groups slam NBC's antipiracy plea

Media conglomerate had asked federal regulators to require broadband providers to police their networks for copyright violations, but public-interest groups say the effort is "misguided."

About a month ago, we reported that media conglomerate NBC Universal has asked federal regulators to require that broadband providers do more about piracy on their networks.

As the Federal Communications Commission weighs whether to impose so-called Net neutrality requirements on companies like Verizon and AT&T, NBC general counsel Richard Cotton urged the regulators to issue a statement that "broadband service providers have an obligation to use readily available means to prevent the use of their broadband capacity to transfer pirated content."

On Monday, which marked the last day for reply comments to issues raised in that initial round, 11 public-interest and consumer advocacy groups filed a 23-page joint response (PDF) asking the FCC to shoot down Cotton's demands.

The groups--which included Public Knowledge, the Consumer Federation of America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Educause and Media Access Project--characterized the network's requests for use of "bandwidth management tools" to police content as "misguided" on a number of fronts.

They argued that most technological filters aimed at ferreting out copyrighted content are either overinclusive, posing a threat to fair use and First Amendment free expression rights, or underinclusive, because "copyright infringers and new technologies will always find a way around them."

Furthermore, the FCC doesn't have the legal power to set copyright policy, the groups said. They pointed to a federal appeals court decision in 2005 that said the FCC had exceeded its authority when it issued rules barring the manufacture of computer and video hardware lacking copy protection capabilities known as the "broadcast flag."

In the broader debate over Net neutrality--the idea that network operators should be prohibited from charging content companies like Google and extra fees for priority placement--opponents have argued it's an issue best settled in the marketplace, not by regulators, and that existing laws could take care of any problems that arise.

Interestingly, many of the groups behind the response to the NBC petition support Net neutrality regulations, but they employed a similar argument to counter the need for an antipiracy mandate.

"Allowing the market to choose among different distribution methods ensures that a variety of approaches can be explored and employed simultaneously, instead of gambling on a government-mandated, one-size-fits-all scheme," they wrote.