By Steve Effros A Free Lunch? It occurred to me the other day how similar in certain ways the issues and expectations are regarding "must carry" and "net neutrality." In both cases, a programmer or information provider demands that the federal government require another business, an infrastructure service provider, to deliver his or her goods and services without charge to the programmer. A "free lunch." In the case of the "must carry" rules, the television broadcasters, who use spectrum they received from the government for free, insist that cable television operators (who built their own broadband systems without any government aid) should be required to carry broadcast signals to the home without charge. Alternatively, they want the power to charge the cable operator who wants to deliver the signals to customers an extra fee to do so. That extra fee for "retransmission consent" can be imposed even though the condition the government imposed when it gave out the spectrum was that broadcasts were to be free. In the "net neutrality" situation, the "edge" suppliers of information, entertainment and services insist that the broadband provider has to deliver all of their material to any broadband customer, whether they like it or not. They also insist the supplier cannot be charged anything for the delivery by the broadband provider. In both cases the broadcasters and the "edge" Internet suppliers insist that not only does the broadband provider have to deliver the material, but there can be no material degradation, and there can be no enhanced delivery of any other similarly situated program or service. It’s easy to demand that another industry be regulated for the benefit of your product, as the broadcasters and Internet "edge" suppliers like Google have done. But what about the obligations assumed when you win such governmental giveaways? In the broadcaster’s case, we have seen that the "cost" of claiming special privileges includes indecency rules imposed by the government, as well as political advertising rules, children’s advertising rules, emergency notification rules and "public interest" programming rules. The list keeps growing. All of these things the broadcasters decry, especially as fines go up and obligations are added. In the Internet sphere, however, we are just at the start of this process. The "edge" players think they can demand government restrictions and rules while at the same time avoiding any government regulation of the "free and open" Internet that they proclaim is their sole abiding interest. History suggests that’s a foolish position to take. Think back for a moment to the "demand" by the broadcasters for extra free frequencies for "advanced" television.That turned into the so-called Chinese Curse (beware of what you ask for; you might get it!) of a mandated DTV transition that the broadcasters are still bemoaning. Do the Googles of the world really think they can demand government regulation of other industries for their benefit and at the same time not have the eye of government behold them? We just had a bill signed in Washington preventing the payment of gambling debts via the Internet. Do they really think it will stop there? One of the things the cable industry learned a long time ago is to avoid asking the government for special favors; they almost always carry an unanticipated price tag. I fear the same thing may be true for the Internet folks. And that would be a shame because we all benefit now from an open, vibrant Internet that was spawned specifically because the government stayed out of the way.

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