Justine Bateman may have grabbed the headlines, but she wasn’t the only witness from Hollywood at yesterday’s Senate hearing on neutrality regulation. Nor did she have the most interesting resume. That honor goes to Patric Verrone, the president of the Writer’s Guild of America, west, whose own writing credits include work for everything from The Simpson’s and Futurama to Rugrats and the Muppets. As Verrone himself put it, “I am the only panelist to have written a film about a robot poker tournament in space Vegas in the year 3009 so I think my expertise in the area is unquestionable.”
Strangely enough, I first came into contact with Verrone not from his WGA work, or even from 31st century poker tournaments, but from Ebay, where he sells miniature figures of U.S. presidents and other notable individuals. My six-year old son Peter and I have become avid collectors of the figurines.
Verrone is no stranger to market power – being the only known vendor of the pricey presidents. (Although I suspect the demand side is rather thin as well).
Outside of the tiny figurine world, Verrone is best known for leading Hollywood writers through a 100-day strike, which finally ended in February of this year. Oddly, however, Verrone, in his testimony, uses that experience as evidence of the need for Internet regulation.
According to Verrone, because of concentration in the media world, the writers were not able to get adequate coverage of their strike activities. “When traditional media is in the hands of the same corporations that employ you”, he said, “it’s hard to get your message out. We had four thousand attend rallies that got less – and later – coverage on the local news than a dog wedding”.
The writers, he said, had to turn to the Internet to get the word out: ”The Internet proved to be a powerful tool for communication. E-mails, blogs, websites, podcasts and video clips were passed along on the net, giving our members updates and informing the world about our cause.”
But wait a second. I don’t seem to remember any traditional news blackout of the strike. I’ve never been to a dog wedding, but I can’t imagine any canine nuptials receiving more attention. A quick search of the term “WGA” on the cnn.com website returns nine video reports on the strike, almost one every 10 days. If the media monopolists were trying to stifle word that Hollywood writers were on strike, they didn’t do a very good job.
But even if traditional media stifled news that pens had been downed, the lesson of Verrone’s story seems to be that the Internet ensured that information got out anyway. Rather than illustrate the power of “Big Media,” the experience underscores how the Web has reduced the power of anyone — no matter how big – to restrict information.
As a final logical jump, Verrone concluded that neutrality regulation is needed to keep the Internet free, so it can continue to serve this role. No offense to animated features, but that’s a cartoon version of the situation. The real danger isn’t a dark conspiracy by Verizon or Comcast to keep news off the web. They have neither the ability nor incentive to do that. The real danger is that investment in the web will fall behind demand – and that traffic will be mired in endless congestion and delay.
And that would be a true horror story, whether you are using the web to convey information about a strike or to sell miniature presidents.