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Is CBS's web blocking of Time Warner Cable customers illegal? Senator wants FCC to investigate

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CBS TWC block online net neutrality
CBS TWC block online net neutrality

Time Warner Cable internet customers are smarting from CBS' decision to block them from viewing shows online, but they have at least one supporter in Congress. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) has written to acting FCC chair Mignon Clyburn, asking her agency to investigate the blackout. The letter, published in full at the LA Times, urges the FCC to help broker a deal between the two companies, which have been feuding over the cost of carrying CBS channels. "I encourage both parties to remain engaged in good faith negotiations," he writes, "and I also request that the Commission take action to bring the parties together so these negotiations can be concluded in an equitable and expeditious manner."

Markey says he's not taking a side in the dispute. But he's "particularly concerned" about reports that CBS won't let Time Warner Cable subscribers watch shows on the web. "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," he writes. "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."

CBS has made no secret of the fact that it's blocking content, but it's denied that it's broken any net neutrality laws — and because it's not an ISP, it's almost certainly correct. But Markey wants the FCC to look into it nonetheless. "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," he writes.

Markey isn't the only one concerned that customers are being "caught in the middle" of the dispute. Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) has promised to see if legal changes are necessary to prevent future channel blackouts. Earlier this week, Time Warner Cable itself filed a letter to the FCC asking the commission to "make clear that such abusive conduct will not be tolerated by broadcast licensees and their affiliates." Both TWC and advocacy group Public Knowledge suggest that CBS is abusing the privileges that grant it free airspace courtesy of the FCC. "Congress created the retransmission law on which CBS justifies pulling its programming from Time Warner Cable subscribers to protect local broadcasters and local programming — not as a gift to media giants to extort even higher fees," writes Public Knowledge's Harold Feld.

Whether the FCC will act, of course, is another matter. Bloomberg has reported that Chairwoman Clyburn doesn't believe the agency can intervene under current laws, and that rewriting them wouldn't help the present disagreement. Likewise, the FCC's comment to The Verge did not suggest any involvement. "The Commission is disappointed that the respective parties could not reach a retransmission agreement," said an official. "Our primary concern remains with consumers and viewers in the affected markets. We urge all parties involved to resolve this situation as soon as possible."