WASHINGTON--It was an atypical start for a Capitol Hill hearing--arguably the first time a politician ever paused his opening remarks to grab a digital video camera and capture the scene around him for a few seconds.
"I thought we could have the first ever YouTube video of a committee hearing from the chairman's perspective," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said as he aimed the palm-sized silver gadget at a table lined with video tech executives, including YouTube CEO Chad Hurley, billionaire investor and HDNet founder Mark Cuban, and the CEOs of Slingbox and TiVo. "Would the witnesses just wave? And how about the audience? The audience is looking great."
As promised, a staffer promptly uploaded the 85-second video to the YouTube page belonging to the veteran politician, who heads the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on telecommunications and Internet issues. The purpose of the morning meeting was to explore the future of video. Other witnesses included the creator of the hit television series Everybody Loves Raymond and executives from the Disney and ESPN networks and Qualcomm's MediaFlO unit, which recently rolled out live TV capabilities for mobile phones.
But it quickly became apparent that the hearing wasn't just a playful show-and-tell for the companies represented, as some politicians proceeded to put YouTube in the hot seat over its copyright policies.
"Hopefully I won't mess this up, because if I do, it could end up on YouTube."
--YouTube CEO Chad Hurley
Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) told Hurley he could go on to YouTube right now and pull up dozens, even hundreds more clips that are obviously copyrighted work. "Why don't you take that stuff down?" he asked.
Hurley defended the site's practices as in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal law designed to shield Internet hosts from liability provided that they meet certain requirements and respond to notices from copyright holders to remove offending content. (Cuban, seated at the opposite end of the witness table, later decried that explanation, accusing the Google-owned company of misapplying that law and looking the other way as copyright violations continue.)
When Hurley later maintained that YouTube "isn't about copyrighted material," Ferguson accused him of ignoring reality.
Later, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) targeted a YouTube feature that allows users to make videos private. He pressed Hurley on how the company ensures that that feature isn't being used to hide copyrighted content or even child pornography, and he accused the company of failing to do enough to stop such activity.
After some prodding, Hurley acknowledged that there's no way for outsiders to police that password-protected content, although he said that "very few" of the site's videos are marked as private. He maintained that the site enforces its guidelines, which prohibit adult and violent content, and said the company is "aggressively working on technology to address all issues with our system."
The event also turned into yet another debate over enacting so-called Net neutrality laws, with Democrats continuing to urge such a move and Republicans decrying them as unnecessary regulation. (Net neutrality proponents say the concept means that network operators shouldn't be allowed to prioritize content that travels over their pipes or charge content companies extra for premium treatment.)
"I think Congress has to ensure that the voices of the many can continue to speak to the many," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who went on to ask Hurley how an "open Internet really facilitates" services like YouTube. Parent company Google has emerged of one of the chief lobbying forces behind Net neutrality laws.
Cuban, for his part, said the Net neutrality controversy would vanish if the nation dispenses with "ancient technology" like the coaxial cables and telephone wires that currently provide most broadband access. Because those broadband delivery methods have intrinsic bandwidth limits, he urged the focus to shift to massive upgrades--specifically to all-fiber networks that deliver one gigabit-per-second data streams straight to the home.
"Unfortunately now in our broadband environment, there's not enough room for everybody," he told the politicians. "The concept of Internet video replacing HDTV programming is laughable."
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) indicated that he agrees with that perspective and said increasing the broadband "supply" was key to staving off Internet "chokepoints."
All the politicians present said they were wowed by the changes they have seen in video services over the years--and they credited their invited guests for many of those developments. Markey, for one, opined about how TiVo has "revolutionized his life," and when it came time to introduce Hurley, he called him "an historic figure" on par with Yahoo's Jerry Yang, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
Even Hurley, clad in a dark pinstriped suit at his Capitol Hill debut, gave a nod to the wide-reaching role the video-sharing site he co-founded has played in the lives of public figures. Before beginning his opening remarks, he quipped, "Hopefully I won't mess this up, because if I do, it could end up on YouTube."