Cable Companies: Google Threatens Net Neutrality, Not Us

Internet service providers are urging the FCC to regulate popular websites.

A sign is posted on the exterior of Google headquarters on January 30, 2014 in Mountain View, California.  
National Journal
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Brendan Sasso
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

The real threat to on­line free­dom is from In­ter­net gi­ants like Google and Net­flix, ac­cord­ing to ma­jor cable com­pan­ies.

Those sites could block ac­cess to pop­u­lar con­tent and ex­tort tolls out of In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders, the cable com­pan­ies warn.

The ar­gu­ment is the back­ward ver­sion of the usu­al fight over net neut­ral­ity.

There is in­tense pub­lic pres­sure on the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion to en­act net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions that pre­vent broad­band pro­viders from block­ing web­sites or ma­nip­u­lat­ing In­ter­net traffic. Con­sumer ad­vocacy groups and the ma­jor In­ter­net com­pan­ies warn that be­cause broad­band pro­viders like Com­cast con­trol their cus­tom­ers’ ac­cess to the en­tire In­ter­net, they have tre­mend­ous power to dis­tort the In­ter­net for their own pur­poses.

But in a fil­ing to the FCC, Time Warner Cable claimed that the con­tro­versy over In­ter­net pro­viders po­ten­tially char­ging web­sites for ac­cess to spe­cial “fast lanes” is a “red her­ring.” The real danger, the cable com­pany claimed, is that Google or Net­flix could de­mand pay­ments from In­ter­net pro­viders. Cus­tom­ers ex­pect ac­cess to the most pop­u­lar web­sites, and an In­ter­net pro­vider may have little choice but to pay up.

The Na­tion­al Cable and Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions As­so­ci­ation, which rep­res­ents all the ma­jor cable com­pan­ies, wrote that “a re­l­at­ively con­cen­trated group of large [Web com­pan­ies]—such as Google, Net­flix, Mi­crosoft, Apple, Amazon, and Face­book—have enorm­ous and grow­ing power over con­sumers’ abil­ity to ac­cess the con­tent of their choice on the In­ter­net.”

The group ar­gued that Google, which handles about 68 per­cent of all In­ter­net searches, has far more con­trol over ac­cess to oth­er sites than any in­di­vidu­al broad­band pro­vider does.

“It makes no sense to fo­cus ex­clus­ively on In­ter­net ac­cess pro­viders and ig­nore con­duct by [web­sites] that threatens sim­il­ar harms,” the cable lob­by­ing group wrote.

The threat of be­ing charged for ac­cess to web­sites is a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus for the Amer­ic­an Cable As­so­ci­ation, which rep­res­ents small cable com­pan­ies. In its fil­ing, the group warned the FCC that “leav­ing oth­er In­ter­net act­ors free to block or dis­crim­in­ate” would “un­der­mine the rules’ goals and ef­fect­ive­ness.”

It’s not that crazy an idea that web­sites might charge broad­band pro­viders for ac­cess to their con­tent. After all, cable com­pan­ies pay for the right to carry TV chan­nels.

But dur­ing Net­flix’s quarterly earn­ings call this week, CEO Reed Hast­ings dis­missed the idea of de­mand­ing money for the “priv­ilege” of car­ry­ing Net­flix data.

“I think the In­ter­net really has this dif­fer­ent, much more open, ar­chi­tec­ture than clas­sic cable,” Hast­ings said. “What you get is this open, vi­brant sys­tem that the In­ter­net has been so fam­ous for. And that’s really the tra­di­tion that we grew up in, and that we’re try­ing to see carry for­ward.”

It’s un­likely the FCC would ex­tend its net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions to web­sites like Net­flix. In its pro­pos­al, the FCC said that while “oth­er forms of dis­crim­in­a­tion in the In­ter­net eco­sys­tem may ex­ist “¦ such con­duct is bey­ond the scope of this pro­ceed­ing.”

The ar­gu­ment comes at a time when In­ter­net reg­u­la­tion is up for grabs: A fed­er­al court struck down the FCC’s old net-neut­ral­ity rules earli­er this year, and FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er is now try­ing to re­work the rules in a way that can sur­vive fu­ture court chal­lenges. His pro­pos­al has sparked a massive back­lash be­cause it would al­low broad­band pro­viders to charge web­sites for faster ser­vice as long as the agree­ments are “com­mer­cially reas­on­able.”

Mi­chael Wein­berg, vice pres­id­ent of the con­sumer ad­vocacy group Pub­lic Know­ledge, said net neut­ral­ity is really about pre­vent­ing In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders from ab­us­ing their power as “gate­keep­ers” of all In­ter­net con­tent. Net­flix might be a gate­keep­er for ac­cess to House of Cards, but that’s an en­tirely dif­fer­ent prob­lem, he said.

But if the FCC al­lows net neut­ral­ity to die, it’s pos­sible that the In­ter­net could be­gin to re­semble cable TV, Wein­berg said.

“The Net­flixes and Googles of the world may have to pay to get on Com­cast, Ve­r­i­zon, and AT&T,” he pre­dicted. “One way that they might make up that money is to charge small or rur­al ISPs high rates to ac­cess Google and Net­flix.”

But, for now, the FCC should fo­cus on en­act­ing strong net-neut­ral­ity rules that pre­vent ab­uses by In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders, Wein­berg said.

There have been ex­amples of web­sites block­ing ac­cess to con­tent for sub­scribers of par­tic­u­lar In­ter­net pro­viders. But the cul­prits wer­en’t Google or Net­flix—they were me­dia com­pan­ies that pulled on­line videos as part of con­tract dis­putes with cable pro­viders.

Last year, for ex­ample, CBS blocked its on­line videos for Time Warner Cable sub­scribers after the com­pan­ies were un­able to reach an agree­ment on car­ry­ing CBS TV sta­tions. The tac­tic en­sured that cus­tom­ers couldn’t just watch their fa­vor­ite shows on­line for free while the ac­tu­al chan­nel was blacked out.

Wein­berg said the on­line black­outs are troub­ling, but they are a symp­tom of a “broken” TV reg­u­lat­ory re­gime, not evid­ence that net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions should cov­er web­sites.

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