TV blackout raises net-neutrality concerns

Certain television channels have gone blank for Cablevision subscribers after the cable operator and News Corporation failed to come to an agreement on fees.

In question is how much Cablevision must pay News Corporation to carry its content. The contract between the companies expired last week, and they have failed to come to a new agreement after negotiating late into Saturday.

In the meantime, News Corporation channels are blacked out for Cablevision customers. News Corporation owns the Fox network. The blackout affects about 3 million people in the New York metropolitan area. 

The dispute made a foray into net-neutrality questions on Saturday amid reports that News Corporation had blocked Cablevision Internet users from accessing Fox websites, including Hulu.com, which News Corporation partially owns.

The development prompted concern from net-neutrality advocates, who believe any Internet user should be able to access any free Internet site regardless of who provides them Internet service.

Usually net-neutrality advocates are concerned about Internet service providers blocking content, rather than content providers doing so, but advocates still saw the circumstances as violating net-neutrality policies.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski on Saturday to raise concerns about Internet openness. 

He called the blocking "contrary to the Commission's Broadband Internet Policy Statement of 2005, which states, in part, that ‘... consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.’"

“The tying of cable TV subscription to access to Internet fare freely available to other consumers is a very serious concern. Consumers are losing their freedom to access the Internet content of their choice — through no fault of their own — and this is patently anti-consumer," Markey said, adding that the FCC needs to "actively" defend Internet freedom and consumer rights in this situation.

Public Knowledge, which advocates for telecom reform, also saw the dispute as infringing on Internet openness policies.

“We need to remember that the government's policy is that consumers should have access to lawful content online, and that policy should not be disrupted by a programming dispute,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge.

Another telecom reform group, Free Press, raised similar concerns. "This discrimination against Cablevision high-speed Internet customers is particularly egregious because all other online viewers who do not purchase any cable television service currently have unfettered access to Hulu and Fox.com content," said Derek Turner, Free Press research director. 

Members have chimed in to argue that the rules governing negotiations between broadcasters and cable operators are in need of reform. Critics of retransmission consent regulations say such rules give broadcasters too much power because they have the ability to pull their content.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Communication Subcommittee, argued for an overhaul on Saturday.

"While retransmission consent negotiations more often than not result in an agreement, when failure occurs, it disrupts the lives of people who just want the service they pay for to deliver the programming they expect," he said.

Kerry called for "new rules of the road."

"I will be introducing legislation that would stave off the termination of carriage of signals upon the expiration of an agreement and allow signals to continue transmitting until the FCC evaluates the last best offer of the firms, determines whether they were made consistent with good faith negotiation and market conditions, and if they were, then recommends or does not recommend binding arbitration during which carriage would continue," he said.

When the blackout began, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he was "disappointed."

"While federal law provides that the terms will be set by agreement between private companies, Fox and Cablevision share responsibility for protecting their audience's interests. I expect both companies to live up to this responsibility," he said.

Not all lawmakers saw the situation as evidence that an overhaul is needed. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) weighed in Friday in a letter to the FCC.

"In order to continue fostering strong competition, private companies should engage in these negotiations without government intervention. The current retransmission consent regulations have worked well for nearly two decades, to the benefit of viewers, MVPDs, and content owners," he said.

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