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Popcorn Time could flip the tables on net neutrality

Will Netflix be able to simultaneously argue for net neutrality and copyright reform, or will the company decide that its business interests are more important?

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If there’s a current corporate champion of net neutrality, there’s no doubt it’s Netflix. The streaming company has made no bones about its desire for an internet that is free from undue interference from connectivity providers such as cable companies, an unsurprising position given its service literally depends on those companies’ wires.

It isn’t completely unsurprising, though, given that the current net neutrality fracas in the United States was sparked by a dispute between Netflix having to pay Comcast extra to get smooth streaming for its customers. Arguing for strong neutrality rules while reluctantly coughing up the extra dough to Comcast, as Netflix is doing, could actually be seen as bad business. Netflix can afford to pay more and doing so could strengthen a regime under which it would be hard for a competitor to emerge.

Such maneuvering is not without precedent. Remember that before Netflix, Google was a strong proponent of net neutrality. Yet, when faced with the proposition of duking it out with wireless service providers – the same companies Google needed to make its Android operating system a success – the search engine company decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Google compromised and supported a Verizon-flavoured kind of net neutrality and, while the company still quietly supports the overall principle, its rhetoric has been dialed back considerably in favour of its business interests.

Google’s move highlights how quickly enemies can become friends in such situations, and vice versa. Net neutrality advocates would do well to consider that in regards to Netflix’s current advocacy. While the streaming company is an ally to the cause today, there may come a day when it won’t be.

The gamer changer could very well be Popcorn Time, a service that is superior to Netflix in many ways – except, of course, in legality. Popcorn Time is a piece of downloadable software for PCs and Android devices that, once installed, aggregates torrents and transforms them into a clean-and-simple Netflix-like interface of movie and TV show thumbnails. Users simply select what they want to watch and, within seconds, streaming begins.

All of the inconveniences of piracy – finding files on a torrent site, then downloading them through a BitTorrent program, then worrying about video codecs – is hidden under the proverbial hood. Popcorn Time is piracy made unbelievably easy, which is why its threat to Netflix is clear: it provides the same friendly and easy-to-use experience, but its content catalog is current and relatively all-encompassing. And oh yes, it’s free.

The original developers of Popcorn Time, a group in Argentina, said their project was intended to make a point about how innovation was being held back by antiquated laws and copyright systems:

Tons of people agreed in unison that the movie industry has way too many ridiculous restrictions on way too many markets. Take Argentina for example: streaming providers seem to believe that “There’s Something About Mary” is a recent movie. That movie would be old enough to vote here.

Those developers decided to get out of the inevitable copyright firestorm, but a new group quickly took over and vowed that Popcorn Time will “never be taken down,” echoing the mantra of notorious torrent site The Pirate Bay. Like the Energizer Bunny, that site keeps going and going, despite concerted efforts to shut it down.

Netflix executives also support copyright reform. If my previous conversations with them are anything to go by, they’d very much like to be able to offer the same current content in every country that the service operates. But how long till the company starts to sweat its new rival?

If Popcorn Time becomes as popular as The Pirate Bay and starts to steal business from Netflix, could the streaming giant eventually join the array of forces looking to shut it down? And wouldn’t it be ironic if Netflix were vocally advocating for net neutrality while simultaneously supporting antiquated copyright laws?

Net neutrality and copyright are two seemingly disparate issues, but in the case of corporate champions there’s an inevitable clash coming. It’s hard to imagine any company arguing for one policy favoured by the internet community and simultaneously against another that’s despised.

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