In a potentially divisive move, several prominent civil rights organizations have agreed to work with Verizon to provide public interest video programming for their new FIOS (fiber optic) video-on-demand service. According to a press release from Verizon, the initial groups who have signed up with the "Community Studio" include the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, American Association for People with Disabilities,the Black Leadership Forum and the U.S. Distance Learning Association.
The "Community Studio" is a pilot project to provide video-on-demand public interest content:
Slated to begin in the second quarter of 2006, Community Studio will leverage the unmatched capacity of FiOS TV’s fiber-optic transmission and offer viewers a library of public interest and civil rights content each month. Customers will use Verizon’s video-on-demand (VOD) service to watch Community Studio programs whenever they want to see them.
However other civil rights organizations, such as those in the Save the Internet campaign, have heavily criticized Verizon’s attempts to enter the video content market because of the telecom’s lack of commitment to Net Neutrality. Current legislation under consideration in the House and the Senate grant national franchises to telecoms and cable companies to provide video content to consumers, but don’t contain any provisions that protect the non-discriminatory nature of the internet. In addition, the legislation takes local government out of the loop in franchising decisions and eliminates any requirements for "build out" of networks to poor and underserved communities.
For civil rights groups, they face difficult trade-offs on either end. Some argue that telecoms providing TV and other video content could potentially drive down cable costs and increase media content diversity. The bills preserve most of the PEG (public, educational and government) channel requirements that existing cable companies have to honor. Certainly getting to air your public interest programming for free is a strong incentive.
However the bigger picture of preserving the open nature of the internet and protecting local communities ability to negotiate their own franchising terms for new entrants in the cable market seems to be issues that civil rights groups should be fighting for. Certainly if the Gun Owners of America can see the value in Net Neutrality, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights should too.
Hopefully this will not turn into a public showdown between more "establishment" civil rights groups and newer internet-oriented rights groups. But right now lots of progressive feathers are being ruffled.