Recently, Cablevision and the FOX Network have been duking it out over “carriage rates,” and as a result of the fight, FOX has blocked all of its content from the cable provider’s customers.
These types of disputes aren’t rare, but in this case, FOX took an extra step and blocked all of its content from Cablevision customers trying to access it on the online video site Hulu (of which FOX is part owner). The move has garnered the attention of the FCC, and as Farhad Manjoo of Slate writes, it also highlights just how murky the entire net neutrality debate really is:
For a host of legal and economic reasons, we haven’t traditionally regulated content companies—a category that includes not just studios like Fox but also record labels, newspapers, and Web sites like Google and Facebook (not to mention Slate) . In general, content creators are allowed to distribute their products however they want—it would be absurd for the government to force the Washington Post to sell its paper on newsstands in Boston, say, or for the Feds to require the Beatles to offer their music on the iTunes store.
Online media outlets already impose a host of restrictions on who can get what, when. If you live outside of the United States, you can’t get Hulu. If you live in the United States, you can’t get Spotify. The novel thing about Fox’s Hulu block was that it was aimed at a particular ISP, not a whole country. But what’s wrong with that? Fox’s entire corporate mission, after all, consists of selling content to people who pay for it. Shouldn’t it have the right to block its shows from a set of customers it believes aren’t paying enough?
All of this suggests a blind spot in the neutrality debate. Activists worry that if broadband companies begin charging content companies for access to Internet lines, only big, established sites with deep pockets will be able to afford a place online. But the Fox incident suggests that we should probably be just as concerned about the opposite problem—that content companies might start charging broadband companies to access their content. This would turn the Internet into something like cable TV—your ISP would carry, say, Hulu so long as it paid the site’s owners a carriage fee. The cost of those fees, of course, would be passed along to every one of the ISP’s subscribers, whether they watch Hulu or not.