'Barbershop Punk' Makes the Case for Net Neutrality

There has been a lot of static about the FCC's new Net-neutrality regulations, which would require transparency from broadband providers and prevent them from blocking content and which are currently set to go into effect later this month. The commission continues to get sued left and right, and as of this writing, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, claims to have collected enough signatures to force a vote on a congressional review.

The advocacy documentary Barbershop Punk, directed by Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield, loosely chronicles the birth of the still-roiling policy debate, arguing in the process that the Internet is essentially a public utility, that the First Amendment rights of users ought to protect them from Big Telecom dictating what sites and applications they can and cannot use. The more general concern about media consolidation and corporate influence in Washington, D.C., expressed by talking heads from Janeane Garofalo to conservative pundit/lobbyist Jack Burkman dovetails with the current Occupy message but still feels rather stale—extremely generic shots of cable wires, ocean waves and television static bridge the predictable interview segments.

Nominally, at least, Barbershop Punk is about Robb Topolski, a genial software tester who exposed Comcast's practice of data discrimination in a May 2007 post on a broadband forum. The corporation blocked all his attempts to share barbershop-quartet music on various torrents; the Associated Press story about the interference broke, incredibly, while Topolski was undergoing a cancer surgery that would save his life. One D.C. policy wonk here refers to the barbershop baritone as an “Everyman,” perhaps because he was living way out in Oregon when he compiled his evidence and perhaps because Net-neutrality proponents would prefer a world populated exclusively by such conscientious techno-hobbyists. (Archer and Armfield include footage of Topolski assuring the president of the Songwriters Guild at an FCC open hearing that the uploaded turn-of-the-century harmonies were all in the public domain—to audience applause.) The film forces its point by claiming Topolski as “punk,” an ethos expounded upon here by former Minor Threat and Fugazi front man Ian MacKaye, who is intelligent and impassioned on topics that don't always seem entirely germane to the documentary around him.

As the voices of other interviewees drown out the whistleblower story, Archer and Armfield mostly stick to the agenda: The “punks” typically get the last word. (OK Go's Damian Kulash immediately follows open-Internet critic Scott Cleland; the transfixingly hyperbolic Henry Rollins comes right after Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who sees Net regulations “as not a First Amendment issue, but a business issue.”) Barbershop Punk, though, gains what resonance it has not by its familiar arguments but by virtue of its existence: This is precisely the sort of content that so many of those interviewed fear that, given the license, monolithic ISPs of the near future might feel empowered to block.


This review did not appear in print.

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