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Making sense of the MPAA's latest retro take on tech

The group's Dan Glickman comes out with a blistering attack on Net neutrality, but does he really believe what his speech writers wrote for him? That would be the bigger shock.

MPAA Dan Glickman: Nyet on Net neutrality Declan McCullagh

Dan Glickman, who runs Hollywood's most powerful trade organization, has got to start watching something hipper than It's a Wonderful Life.

The MPAA's senior honcho is an experienced and capable lawyer, but is Glickman's nostalgia for the pre-Internet era clouding his judgment about the movie industry's future? Glickman delivered a speech (PDF) on Monday to the annual ShoWest convention in Las Vegas and it was a corker. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Government regulation of the Internet would impede our ability to respond to consumers in innovative ways, and it would impair the ability of broadband providers to address the serious and rampant piracy problems occurring over their networks today.

This is a high-stakes debate. Do we take a stand for intellectual property rights or cast them aside in the digital environment? Are we permitted to respond to consumers, innovate on their behalf, and compete with the world? Or are we told by our government to stand down? Today MPAA and all of our studios are standing up in opposition to broad-based government regulation of the Internet. We are opposing so-called "Net neutrality" government action. And, in the process, we are standing up for our customers, for our economy, and for the ability of content producers to continue to create great movies for the future.

(Stage instructions: Slow fade out to the background theme of a Lawrence Welk polka, as Zuzu petals sprinkle across the Capitol Dome.)

Now, back to the real world.

Don't believe for a minute that Glickman's as clueless as that speech might suggest. He was a United States Congressman for Kansas' 4th district from 1977 until 1995. Then he served as Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton. He's been running the MPAA since succeeding Jack Valenti in 2004. He knows his way around the corridors of power and how legislation gets passed in Washington. Glick's doing what a smart hired hand representing any powerful interest group does: he's exaggerating for effect.

But here's my rule of thumb: When you find a collection of billion-dollar interests--in this case content companies, cable operators, and telcos--lining up on one side of the issue, you know the fix is in. Glickman is purposely demonizing the import of the Net neutrality bill proposed by Reps. Ed Markey and Chip Pickering and now waiting in the queue before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Read the proposal for yourself, but the attacks are over the top. I wonder whether Glickman would toe the same line if Hollywood was making serious money from Internet downloads (and that day inevitably will arrive.) Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jon Healey fills in the picture:

Yet Hollywood's vision is focused on the near-term risk of piracy, rather than the long-term risk of its distribution pipelines deciding to collect extra tolls. Glickman argued in his speech that neutrality regulations would bar the use of emerging tools that ISPs can use to prevent piracy. That's what some studio lobbyists have been telling lawmakers, too, in their efforts to derail neutrality legislation. And depending on how the regulations are written, they could be right.

But the bill that's awaiting action in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, by (Markey and Pickering) doesn't fit that description. It would make it U.S. policy to preserve the public's access to "lawful" content, applications, and services online, carving out wide latitude for ISPs to interfere with infringing works. For example, ISPs couldn't block all BitTorrent traffic simply because it might be used for piracy, but they could use video fingerprints to try to stop BitTorrent from being used to deliver bootlegged movies.

Sounds mild enough, though I'm sure Comcast might have a problem with that. I'm not sure that most of the rest of us would mind so much.