What started as a commercial dispute over TV rights (known as “retransmission consent”) between CBS and Time Warner Cable has escalated in a troublesome way. A breakdown in carriage negotiations that affects some 3 million television subscribers is also denying access to Internet content to more than 11 million TWC broadband subscribers.
Why? Because CBS is blocking access to CBS.com by anyone using TWC’s broadband Internet-access service, whether they are TWC cable TV subscribers or not.
These actions are terribly harmful to consumers, and are gratuitously overbroad. TWC Internet customers are being denied access to CBS website content even if they subscribe to a different video provider (such as DirecTV or Dish Network), or if they live outside the local TV markets involved in the retransmission-consent dispute. CBS is even blocking access to its content from TWC’s Wi-Fi network by consumers who use other Internet-service providers, such as Comcast.
Blackouts are often an unfortunate byproduct of these disputes. Yet it’s exceptionally aggressive to expand the darkness to broadband consumers not directly affected by the commercial video-retransmission dispute.
CBS’s troubling move brings into sharp relief the power, ability and incentive that content companies possess to deny consumers access to Internet content. In debates over net neutrality — the principle that all consumers should have access to lawful Internet content — Internet service providers (ISPs) have consistently warned that the extremely serious risks to consumers and the principles of an open Internet are more likely to arise from the potential actions of content and edge providers from ISP conduct. But the Federal Communications Commission’s rules over net neutrality are focused on ISPs, not content providers. Just imagine the public and regulatory uproar if TWC, rather than CBS, had made the decision to limit its broadband Internet customers’ access to CBS.com in connection with this dispute.
Business disputes over economic terms can generally be resolved in the market, but where the government has chosen to restrict the actions of one party and not the other, it tilts the playing field — harming consumers and giving unfair advantage to one side.
Commercial disputes happen all the time, and content companies are certainly not obligated to give their content away. But denying only certain consumers access to broadband content that is otherwise freely available on the Web is discriminatory. Does CBS even believe in an open Internet?
Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and former Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) are honorary co-chairs of Broadband for America. This article originally appeared on Politico.com.