WASHINGTON -- Hollywood believes the Internet is the key to its future. But its constituents are again squabbling over how to get there.
As in the recent television writers strike, the major studios are at odds with some members of the creative community over digital distribution. This time it's about a public policy issue known as network neutrality.
Some lawmakers, public interest advocates and big technology companies are pushing for federal rules that would prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing certain content flowing through their high-speed lines. They worry that cable and phone companies could become gatekeepers of the Internet and impede services that threaten their businesses.
Net neutrality is a complicated issue with a wonky name. But as Congress and the Federal Communications Commission consider banning discriminatory practices on the Internet, the entertainment industry is starting to take notice -- and sides.
Major movie studios and record labels are concerned that net neutrality could eliminate a potential tool for fighting online piracy. Meanwhile, independent artists want to ensure that they can disseminate their work freely.
The net neutrality supporters' cause has been boosted in recent months by allegations that Comcast Corp. stopped some of its Internet customers from using BitTorrent, a popular program for downloading videos.
Hollywood's involvement could elevate the largely inside-the-Beltway debate, which has smoldered since 2006 among online activists, public interest groups, technology companies and telecommunications giants.
How lawmakers and regulators deal with the issue could have major implications for Hollywood's battle against piracy and the burgeoning movement by writers, actors and directors to bypass large media companies by distributing their work online.
"Two years or so ago, people in our industry were still looking at the Internet and saying it's not ready," said Jean Prewitt, president of the Independent Film and Television Alliance. "Now, every day you see new services are being launched. So I think the issue has intersected with the marketplace reality."
The Motion Picture Assn. of America, which represents the major movie studios, forcefully opposes proposed new rules. In its view, cable and phone companies need the flexibility to stop people from spreading illegal copies of movies over the Internet.
"Today, new tools are emerging that allow us to work with Internet service providers to prevent this illegal activity," association head Dan Glickman said in a speech at last month's ShoWest convention in Las Vegas. "And new efforts are emerging in Washington to stop this essential progress."
The Recording Industry Assn. of America, which represents major record labels, joined with Viacom Inc. and NBC Universal Inc. to ask the FCC not to enact new network neutrality rules. Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, argued against the rules this month during an FCC hearing at Stanford University, saying the loss of revenue from music piracy had made songwriters "an endangered species."
But Prewitt took the microphone a few minutes later to tell the agency that enacting network neutrality was crucial to maintaining open access to the Internet for independent artists and filmmakers.
Last week, Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, and actress Justine Bateman, who has launched her own online media venture, FM78.tv, also testified at a Senate hearing in favor of the rules.
The FCC is investigating Comcast, accused of blocking some customers from using BitTorrent, a program for sharing large files. Comcast has said it only slowed down some heavy users to reduce congestion during peak periods.
File sharing is a popular way to distribute illegal content, but it also is increasingly used to distribute legal videos.
Some public interest groups have alleged that Comcast had another reason to target BitTorrent: Online video competes with Comcast's pay TV service.
The incident last year has heightened concerns that phone and cable companies, which have spent billions of dollars to build high-speed Internet lines, could erect tollbooths on the information superhighway. They would determine which websites got access to the fast lane to deliver video and other data-heavy applications, and which got relegated to the slow lane -- or maybe even got stuck on the shoulder.
"If the outcome is the studios will have preferred access for delivering content because of a deal they would get with the [Internet service providers], I think that would be a really bad thing for the industry," said Gilles BianRosa, chief executive of Vuze Inc., a Palo Alto-based company that uses a version of BitTorrent technology to let people watch and share video, music and games.
Bateman, best known for her role in the 1980s as Mallory Keaton on "Family Ties," said other actors and producers should be more concerned.
"You need to have a distribution avenue that's free and open, and that's the Internet," Bateman said in an interview. "I don't think it occurred to anybody that would be threatened. But, boy, you could get 5,000 more witnesses if you start spreading that around in Hollywood."