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Months ago, Netflix argued that it was paying an unfair fee to Internet providers just so that its videos could reach you and me unmolested. That claim wound up contributing to a key part of the federal government's new net neutrality rules, which seek to prevent Internet providers from interfering with your Web traffic.
Now, some cable lobbyists are arguing that it's really the Internet providers that need federal protection from content companies. Why? Online video companies, the lobbyists said in a regulatory filing Tuesday, could decide to charge cable companies a toll for accessing their exclusive content — effectively cutting off your viewing pleasure if the cable companies don't pay up.


If it sounds crazy, that's because it's the same argument Netflix put forward last year, just in reverse. The claim sounds insidious because so many cable companies hold an effective monopoly over their Internet subscribers. As gatekeepers, those providers can determine which audiences content companies can reach. That's a lot of power — and as Netflix found out, the cable companies are more than willing to exercise it.
But it starts to make a little more sense if you think about it this way: Netflix isn't the only provider of online videos. You've also got more traditional television programmers such as Disney, Fox, CBS and Viacom. And it's powerful, established companies like these that have some in the cable industry very worried.
Remember when CBS pulled its most popular content from Time Warner Cable, because the two companies disagreed on how much TWC should pay for all that video? Millions of customers lost access to shows like "CSI" and "NCIS" for weeks. TWC walked away from the experience having lost more than 300,000 frustrated subscribers.


The same thing could happen online, the cable industry warns. TV blackouts could turn into Internet blackouts as CBS and other programmers start offering more of their content over the Web — and using a cable company's own video-hungry Internet subscribers as point of leverage in fee negotiations.
Programmers could even begin asking cable companies to pay a fee when their Internet subscribers try to watch the streaming versions of their favorite shows, rather than the traditional broadcasts shown on cable TV, according to cable lobbyists. Smaller cable companies backed by the American Cable Association claim in a new filing to federal regulators that programmers such as CBS and Viacom have threatened to block certain cable subscribers from viewing videos that are "freely available on the Internet" to everybody else.
If they carried out their threats, "that result would not only be contrary to an open Internet, it would greatly inhibit broadband deployment," the ACA wrote to the Federal Communications Commission Tuesday.
That last claim is super important. What the ACA wants is to get the FCC to apply its new powers over the Internet to change the pay-television market in its favor. This would be a huge deal. Doing so would effectively link two issues — cable TV and cable Internet — that have historically been separated from one another by technology and engineering. It would also recognize that these two issues can no longer be considered separately, as all forms of media gradually converge and become packets of data.


But it's a dangerous game the industry is playing. Asking for the FCC to regulate television more closely using its net neutrality powers sets the stage for more regulatory action — in ways that perhaps the industry won't ultimately like.


"This only seems to suggest even more sweeping authority" when many Internet providers already view the FCC's net neutrality rules as an overreach by government, one cable industry official said.
The cable industry's biggest trade association, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, declined to comment.


Update:
Netflix chimed in Tuesday by claiming vindication for the stance it said it'd been advocating all along.
"One of the benefits of [Internet providers] and content providers agreeing not to charge each other," said Netflix spokeswoman Anne Marie Squeo, "is that it avoids putting consumers in the middle of [fee] battles like the ones between large cable companies and broadcasters."
Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
 
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