(July 2, 2012)
Over the past year, the WGAW has raised serious concerns about data capping, which is the practice of setting limits on consumers’ Internet usage. The issue is heating up in Washington, where the Justice Department has reportedly started an antitrust investigation into whether capping unfairly quashes competition, and elected officials spotlighted caps at the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee’s recent session on the “Future of Video.”
It’s a contentious issue, and one that is extremely relevant to Guild members. WriteNow talked to WGAW Research and Public Policy Director Ellen Stutzman about capping, where the Guild stands and why it matters to writers:
Q: For the uninitiated, can you explain what data capping is and why it is an important issue for the Writers Guild?
ES: Data caps are limits that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Time Warner Cable and Comcast and mobile providers like Verizon and AT&T place on Internet usage by consumers. What’s most common is a monthly cap that users either cannot exceed or are fined for exceeding. The Guild’s concern is that these caps can be used to stifle competition from new sources. Data caps have a disproportionate impact on video, because video consumes more bandwidth than other Internet activities like email or web browsing. As a result, data caps could limit the growth of video on the Internet, restricting opportunities for Guild members. The WGAW wants to promote the growth of a competitive Internet because it is enabling opportunities for members to write, produce and distribute their content as well as employment opportunities.
Q: How would caps affect writers’ work?
ES: If consumers are told they have a cap on their Internet use and that if they go over it their service will be cut off or they will be charged more, the incentive is reduced to seek and consume content. Consumers will be less likely to seek out new online programming, stifling a burgeoning market for independent production. Basically what could happen is that the potential market for Guild members’ digital work just doesn’t materialize because consumers can’t afford it.
Q: Why are data caps an inadequate solution for service providers’ concerns about Internet congestion?
ES: The argument that ISPs make is that with more people using the Internet there is a capacity issue. We aren’t opposed to network management practices that address congestion. But a monthly bandwidth cap is a very crude tool to address time-specific congestion issues. It’s like trying to deal with traffic by limiting the number of miles people can drive in a month. That doesn’t help rush hour at all. Limiting consumer usage of the Internet also provides a disincentive to invest in additional capacity. If there is no incentive to invest, the Internet stays the way it is. It doesn’t grow, and that’s bad for all of us.
Q: What guidelines does the Guild want to see established and enforced vis a vis data caps?
ES: We’re looking for regulatory oversight into these practices to insure that traffic management is not done in an anti-competitive way. We believe that companies need to come up with other ways to address congestion in real time. We also want to make sure that policies are not applied in a discriminatory way between services that an ISP owns versus those that they don’t. For example, Comcast exempts its own streaming service from data caps, but not Netflix. That is a rather clear move to disadvantage a major competitor. These companies have to find better solutions that don’t quash new companies coming into the space and don’t stifle the growth of the Internet.
Q: What is the WGAW doing to further its position?
ES: When we go to D.C. we meet with federal regulators and elected officials to discuss our concerns and urge action. We also work with our consumer allies on the issue to make clear how data caps hurt both content creators and consumers.
Read the Guild’s position statement on data caps