SXSW 2010 Review: BARBERSHOP PUNK

GATW Guest Writer

by:
March 22nd, 2010

Rating: 7/10

Writer(s): Georgia Sugimura, Kristin Armfield
Director(s): Georgia Sugimura, Kristin Armfield
Cast: Robb Topolski, Janeane Garofalo, Henry Rollins

I am a geek. It’s nothing I’m ashamed about, quite the opposite. I’m very proud to be one of the guys my friends and family turn to whenever they have a question about technology, but I’m not as geeky as some and a lot of simple concepts seem to go right over my head. One of those, which is thoroughly explained in the new documentary BARBERSHOP PUNK, is the idea of “net neutrality.”

I think the reason that this concept is so hard to wrap your head around is because it hasn’t been sold correctly to the American people. If you pay attention to the 24 hour news cycle, net neutrality will probably be explained in divisive political terms, but BARBERSHOP PUNK makes it clear that this is a matter of simple rights that everyone should be able to agree upon, despite their political affiliation, and it does this by telling the story of Robb Topolski, who is the David in this David and Goliath tale.

If you pay any sort of attention to the news, either in blog or television form, you’ve probably heard the mantra repeated among geeks that the telecommunications giant Comcast is evil and you can pretty much thank Robb Topolski for this bit of information.

Robb is not a millionaire, a software developer or even a blogger. He is an average guy with kids and a job and the movie takes us through his journey to take on Comcast, which began when he was trying to share old, turn-of-the-century barbershop music (I should note that the copyrights on this music had expired, so this was legal sharing) through a p2p client. He noticed that his internet speed had been acting slow and through a series of tests discovered Comcast had been throttling his speed and were doing so in a way that was extremely hard for anyone to notice. He nonchalantly posted his findings on a forum, unaware that eventually his story would reach the FCC and take him to start a new life in Washington, D.C.

So what exactly is net neutrality? According to Google, it “is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet.” All too often though, corporations (such as Comcast) are making decisions about what we can and cannot see on the Internet. And I’m not talking about illegal content, such as child pornography, which I think we can all agree should be outlawed.

BARBERSHOP PUNK is filled with disturbing examples of content providers discriminating against content they find objectionable, even if it’s perfectly legal. To me, the most disturbing was a Pearl Jam concert in which Eddie Vedder changed the lyrics to “The Wall” to take a jab at the late Bush administration. To those watching live on streaming video, the audio goes silent during those parts.

Other examples include Verizon blocking pro-choice texts, despite the fact that they were only being received by customers who requested them. Also, following the same kinds of tests that Robb Topolski did, it was found that downloads of the Bible were being throttled, while pornography was left alone. It’s almost as though these companies are so afraid of anything politically incorrect going through their systems, that they block it.

The sad part is that the blocking actually causes more trouble for them than just leaving things alone would. Unfortunately, the common carrier laws that protect our mail and phone conversations, don’t carry over to the internet. Net neutrality would reestablish this privacy, which a lot of people don’t even realize they’re missing.

The film supplements the story of Robb Topolski by interviewing a series of musicians, politicians and political commentators, who lend their opinions to both sides of the issue. Some of these personalities include Janeane Garofalo, Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye. All of them are incredibly interesting, but don’t hold a candle to Damian Kulash, lead singer of the band OK Go. Much to my surprise, he was one of the most articulate and intelligent people interviewed and I would’ve liked to see more of him, which might happen when the final version is released.

During the Q&A after the film at SXSW, the makers revealed that the movie was still being worked on and they’d just received a grant to finish it up. Some of the things they’ll be working on are the transitions, which don’t flow very smoothly in some parts, the music and cutting 10 minutes from the film.

As it is, the documentary is already pretty damn good, but I can’t wait to see how much better they can make it in order to make this subject more palatable for audiences, because this is something everyone should be concerned about.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9u-oS3Vw04[/youtube]

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