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CBS blocking of online content for TWC subscribers raises net neutrality questions in Washington

CBS’ un-neutral net tactics against Time Warner Cable broadband subscribers have drawn the attention of at least one leading net neutrality supporter on Capitol Hill. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission late Tuesday, Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts urged the agency to investigate CBS’s blocking of TWC subscribers’ access to its online content as part of the network’s retransmission dispute with the MSO.

“I am also particularly concerned by reports that CBS is blocking access to its Internet-based video for Time Warner Cable broadband customers.,” Markey wrote. “A consumer’s choice of cable television provider should not be tied to her ability to access Internet content that is freely available to other consumers.  In such instances, consumers lose their freedom to access the Internet content of their choice.  This is an anti-consumer result that I urge the Commission to investigate, and I encourage the Commission to actively defend Internet freedom and consumer rights.”

Then-Rep. Markey was the principal author of the 1992 Cable Act that created the current retransmission consent regime while he was serving in the House and introduced one of the first net neutrality bills in Congress.

As I noted in the previous post, the FCC’s net neutrality rules, known as the Open Internet Order, prohibits ISPs from blocking subscribers’ access to any lawful content on the internet, but they say nothing about a content owner blocking a particular ISP’s access to its own content. At the time the rules were issued it hadn’t occurred to anyone that a network might actually do that, but it’s a measure of how high the stakes have gotten in the retransmission game that CBS has taken that step.

It could turn out to be a step too far, however. While the FCC has generally avoided getting involved in carriage disputes between networks and service providers, apart from urging both sides to resolve their differences as quickly as possible. But  by raising the net neutrality issue, however unexpectedly, CBS may find itself facing more pressure from the agency and Capitol Hill than it bargained for.