The documentary Barbershop Punk has as its hero Robb Topolski, who in 2007 discovers that his internet service provider is blocking his attempts to share files of barbershop quartet music. His ISP is Comcast, and his findings disprove some earlier statements made by the telecom giant. The Associated Press runs with the story, and it’s not long before the former police officer and Air Force veteran is thrust into the national argument about net neutrality. Topolski is perfect in the role of the average Joe galvanized into action upon discovering an inherently unethical act. Barbershop Punk uses him as a jumping-off point to address the debate about control of information on the internet, which, as the film makes clear, is really a debate about the changing role of major media conglomerates in American public discourse.
Many advocates for net neutrality wish to return to the time when ISPs were regulated under common carriage laws, which prohibited mail services, phone companies, and dial-up internet providers from interfering with the delivery of information. The laws are now defunct, having been stripped away upon the advent of broadband internet. Thus, it is possible for Comcast to shut down Topolski’s file transfers and reasonably expect that such an action will go unnoticed. The film presents instances such as interference with mass text messages sent out by the pro-choice group NARAL and censorship of a live Pearl Jam concert as symptoms of the same problem.
There is of course a bigger picture. “Media consolidation has limited the voices over the media,” says former FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “While there’s a diversity of voices, there’s only a handful of ventriloquists behind them.” Central to the film and to the net neutrality movement as a whole is the idea that cutting down file transfers in midstream is just the beginning; that, given free reign over a tool such as the internet, large media companies will seek to control both content and the channels through which this content is delivered, limiting free access to information and decimating the last bastion of gatekeeper-free media in this country.
These are dense and complex topics, and there is more to the net neutrality issue than could ever be covered in Barbershop Punk’s relatively short running time. The film is an excellent primer, though, and for the most part it moves along at a brisk pace. But there are some sluggish moments and some unwanted distractions, such as a heavy, and unnecessary, use of insert shots during interview segments. Topolski’s remarks are also often buffered by archival footage of 1950s-era America, and when a commentator discusses the vagaries of the telecom industry, the shots are of monolithic cell phone towers or of blinking wireless routers. Topolski’s brush with death is even illustrated by old, faded pictures of his Air Force days shot in closeup and rolling waves crashing onto some distant shore.
Although the film ends on a hopeful note, a somber tone is present throughout Much of Barbershop Punk grapples with the passing of an older way of conducting business in America. When Steve Wildstrom of Businessweek describes AT&T viewing their phone service as a public trust, it seems as quaint as the vintage home-movie footage interspersed throughout the film; ditto disc jockey and writer Jim Ladd looking back to the days when companies could only control up to seven AM stations, seven FM stations, and seven television stations in one market. Those days are long gone and growing more distant by the day.
“He wants the internet to be the way it’s supposed to be,” Topolski’s daughter says of him at one point. And indeed, Topolski’s vision of the internet continuing as a public trust providing access to unfettered information and open discourse is certainly an admirable one. But Barbershop Punk reminds us not only that our society hasn’t really decided what the internet is supposed to be, but also that the final verdict on the matter may rest with those who stand to benefit most from that crucial definition.