By James Tuthill, San Francisco Chronicle
News Corp. just showed us what the unregulated Internet looks like, and it looks ugly for consumers. For several days last month, News Corp. blocked Cablevision subscribers in the New York area from accessing Fox programming over the Internet because of the dispute between Fox and Cablevision on how much Cablevision will pay Fox for its programming.
Pause for a moment: In the middle of a contentious and shrill national debate on whether Internet services should be subject to nondiscrimination rules, News Corp. decides to block a group of users from viewing its content online. News Corp. stepped in, just as Wellpoint did during the health care debate last spring when it proposed raising health insurance premiums in California by 39 percent. News Corp.’s actions show how easy it is to block certain users by IP addresses, that consumers’ interests don’t matter and that it believes it has no public interest obligations. It’s all about leveraging market power to extract the last dollar from cable viewers.
Its actions demonstrate why the common carrier rules – which the Federal Communications Commission has proposed – need to be applied to Internet services: discrimination. At the heart of those rules is the principle that everyone can buy service at the same price and get the same quality. Although Fox’s broadcast stations are content providers and not Internet service providers, it is not just any content provider. It is a broadcast television content provider. It received valuable broadcast licenses for which it paid nothing to the public, and as a consequence, it has public interest obligations. One of those obligations is to provide free over-the-air television.
But when approximately 90 percent of households receive video content from cable and Direct Broadcast Satellite service providers and not with an antenna, that obligation has lost much of its social value. An updated public interest standard would obligate broadcasters to maintain viewer access to their content, regardless of the medium, whether it be an antenna, cable, DBS or Internet. If a broadcaster doesn’t want that obligation, then, OK, but give back your license so the valuable radio spectrum you have been using for free can be put to a true public use.
If the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t act quickly to resolve these disputes, this World Series won’t be the last major sporting or entertainment event blacked out to certain groups of viewers. That kind of discrimination contravenes the concept of free broadcast television even if it is delivered via the Internet, and should be prohibited.