Network Neutrality Turned on Its Head

For several years now, advocated of strict regulation to guarantee network neutrality have warned us that unless reined in, they big cable and phone companies that control the internet’s plumbing would discriminate in the delivery of content based on the willingness of web site owners to pay. The fact that this hasn’t happened and shows no sign of happening has not deterred them in the least.

But what if web sites began to discriminate by blocking some content depending on who your internet service provider is? Or what device you use to view the content? Neither violates net neutrality as it has customarily been defined, but both are happening in the real world and the result is troubling.

News Corp., which has been locked in a dispute with Cablevision over redistribution of the Fox TV network and other News corp. properties earlier this month blocked internet subscribers from accessing Fox content on, the commercial TV web site partially owned by News Corp. News corp. quickly relented, but it had made its point. (Cablevision customers are still not getting News Corp. channels on their cable TV service.)

Then ABC, CBS, and NBC blocked the new Google TV set top boxes from access to TV shows on  their Web sites. Earlier, Hulu barred access to Apple TV units that had been modified to run the Boxee TV aggregation service.

In both cases, the motivations of the content owners are understandable. News Corp. wanted to use Hulu to put pressure on Cablevision by blocking its customers from using a web access to get around the absence of channels from their cable systems.

The Google TV matter is a bit more complicated. TV networks these days derive a huge share of their revenue from cable systems. Cable systems fear, with considerable justification, that if TV content is widely available on the web and as easy to watch from the internet as it is on cable, subscribers will desert in droves. So the networks are perfectly happy to let people watch their content on PCs, since they generally represent net additions to viewership, but they want to keep their cable partners happy by keeping that same content off of easy-to-use set top boxes. (Yes, you can get around this by hooking up a PC to your television. This is an idea appealing mainly to people who have never actually tried it and discovered how unsatisfactory Windows or Mac OS X is as a TV user interface.)

Despite some fulminations and threats of investigations by lawmakers, there is no indication that the content owners have acted illegally in any way. But if it should be against the law for ISPs to discriminate based on content, shouldn’t content owners also be prohibited from discriminating based on your choice of ISP or device? It seems to me that the only difference is that the second type of discrimination is actually happening.



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