No, ESPN Still Isn't Breaking Imagined 'Reverse Net Neutrality' Concept

from the once-more-with-feeling dept

Back in 2006, some people noticed that the ESPN360 online video service was only available to subscribers of certain ISPs, leading it to be charged with violating “reverse net neutrality” principles for — gasp — deciding the business model under which it wanted to sell its content. ESPN was taking a very cable-channel-like approach: instead of selling access to individual users, it sold access to ISPs, who then offered it to their subscribers, much like cable operators offer its channel to their users. The idea that ESPN was violating some sort of net-neutrality ideal was way off-base then, and it still is today, even though somebody at Wired just noticed what ESPN’s doing.

So, once again, it bears repeating: a content company using the business model of its choice doesn’t violate net neutrality, nor this invented concept of “reverse net neutrality.” Whether ESPN’s business model will be successful is another discussion; but selling access to ISPs instead of individuals really is no different than ISPs offering their customers the use of various ISP-specific portals, or offering them free anti-virus software. Does it violate net neutrality somehow that, say, Verizon FIOS subscribers can’t use AT&T U-Verse webmail? The ESPN360 scenario really is no different: it’s content or a service that the ISP has licensed and is offering to its subscribers in hopes of gaining some competitive advantage over its rivals.

ESPN is being accused of “effectively [giving] the middle finger to net neutrality,” but really, it’s the total opposite. The concern with net neutrality is that content providers would have to pay ISPs so that ISP customers could access their content. What’s happening here is that ESPN’s convinced ISPs to pony up so that their subscribers can access its content. The ISPs are enabling access to content they’ve paid for, not blocking access to content from providers who won’t pay. That’s a tacit admission on the part of the ISPs that their networks are only as valuable as the content they can access. By enabling access to more content, they’ve enhanced the value of their networks. Imagine if Google took this approach and went to ISPs demanding payment, instead of the other way around. ISPs would very quickly figure out that impeding their customers’ access to content — the entire crux of the net neutrality argument — will kill them in the marketplace. ESPN’s gotten its ISP customers to admit that ensuring users can access as much content as possible enhances the value of their networks, and if anything, that affirms the principles of network neutrality.

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Comments on “No, ESPN Still Isn't Breaking Imagined 'Reverse Net Neutrality' Concept”

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41 Comments
Chad says:

the problem with your argument that you neglect to mention is that by forcing ISP’s pay for the content, that cost trickles down to the customers. In essence customers that do not want to watch espn, espn360 or dont watch sports at all will be subsidizing the ones that do watch it. Thanks to America’s tax dollars going to work to create an infrastructure with legislated monopolies, most people have one or two options for internet: Cable and/or DSL which defeats the purpose of consumer choice.

This is just another attempt, by big corporate greedy CEO’s to turn the internet into a whored-out media wasteland indistinguishable from print, radio, or television. They want to become the gatekeepers of the internet because it drives them insane to know that people can freely access information that hasn’t first been filtered by them for content and then distributed at a premium.

I think that ISP based content restrictions are indeed a violation of Net Neutrality and those that filter in this way should be sued. I do not want my Internet connection to evolve into a high priced tiered cable network. We see where this has led us with huge cable bills, a I will vote to see it stopped.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

the problem with your argument that you neglect to mention is that by forcing ISP’s pay for the content,

No ISP is forced to do anything.

that cost trickles down to the customers

As does the cost of ISP-owned email. Does anyone see that as a violation?

In essence customers that do not want to watch espn, espn360 or dont watch sports at all will be subsidizing the ones that do watch it.

Just like those who don’t use their ISP-supplied email address are subsidizing those that do. Were you complaining about that?

Thanks to America’s tax dollars going to work to create an infrastructure with legislated monopolies, most people have one or two options for internet: Cable and/or DSL which defeats the purpose of consumer choice.

Indeed. This is a point we’ve made many times. But there are numerous sports providers online, so ESPN isn’t violating any common carrier rules or gov’t granted subsidies. So where’s the problem?

I think that ISP based content restrictions are indeed a violation of Net Neutrality and those that filter in this way should be sued. I do not want my Internet connection to evolve into a high priced tiered cable network. We see where this has led us with huge cable bills, a I will vote to see it stopped.

Again, did you sue Verizon because you couldn’t get Comcast email via Verizon?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is worrisome that this could cause the internet to become fragmented among ISPs. Soon, we may have to choose which ISP’s walled garden we want to access. This sets bad precedent. Email is different because its a service. Once you get content and other service providers involved, it can become a problem. Imagine if Google did this. Maybe each search engine will choose a different ISP. Maybe ISPs will start charging individuals for the extra content and just say, “This way, we’re not charging those who don’t want it.” Then we can start getting charged for services everybody uses for free now.

ScaredOfTheMan says:

Let them be

I would however like my ISP to refund me the portion of my bill used to pay for this silliness. I do not visit any ESPN site and therefor need my money back.

I really am amused watching these content companies try to shoe horn old media business models into the internet. Exclusive distribution on the Internet is an Oxymoron!

ISP should shun this, its not a selling point, it will not bring you new customers. Let ESPN360 and their precious content market themselves to their own customers and leave me and my internet bill out of it.

Steve R. (profile) says:

The US Tax Code Revisted

This post has the clarity of the US tax code.

I agree with Chad: “I think that ISP based content restrictions are indeed a violation of Net Neutrality and those that filter in this way should be sued. I do not want my Internet connection to evolve into a high priced tiered cable network. We see where this has led us with huge cable bills, a I will vote to see it stopped.”

Based on what I have read concerning Net Neutrality, those who do not want the Net regulated hide their true intent behind abstract free market principles when they really mean that they should have an arbitrary and capricious capability to screw the consumer in an opaque manner without recourse.

Jesse says:

There are definitely two angles: Carlo, you are basically saying that if the content wasn’t originally available, and then an ISP licensed it, then the ISP is only offering more service. Critics say that if it’s content that is originally available, and then ISPs are requested to pay for it or have their servers blocked, then this is creating a really shitty situation.

Carlo, I think the problem is that if every website started adopting this policy (or even just the big ones), it would make accessing the internet a lot more expensive, even though the content didn’t really change.

It might also make room for little websites that are ‘free’ to blow up and replace those that did the licensing thing.

vernon says:

It may seem like a good idea

It may seem like a good idea, but I pay my ISP for the ability to access and interact with the internet. When my ISP starts deciding (limiting) what I can and cannot access then I’m not getting what I’m paying for. If access to content is what’s important, I can cancel my dsl and watch cable.

Chad says:

@Mike –

ISP’s arent forced you are right. But if ISP’s want to carry the ESPN360 they do have to pay for it. not for free. no way. – cost gets carried down to the customer.

no one sees the violation of ISP owned email because they are providing a common service through them to have an email address and you are paying for not just the email address but the storage for the emails and any web hosting services you can get from the particular ISP. Therfore i would see this as part of the common carrier part of their job. sure many people just use gmail but i do use my (comcast) email as well. You could argue that email is content but its YOUR content and no one else’s unless comcast for whatever reason decided to wipe all my data.

paying for something through a tiered service such as ESPN360 when i dont want it or need it is not part of my comcast agreement. That content goes beyond the scope of what a cable provider should be and thats getting in the business of distributing content unwanted and making the said unwanted still paying for it. Linking an ISP e-mail to 3rd party content providers at the expense of the consumer with no recourse is stretching things a tad bit.

I pay my ISP for bandwidth(and yes email storage) and after that I’d like them to stay out of my way. Period.

The internet is a network for the people, paid for by the people(yet we have yet to see the fruition of that payment via the $200 Billion scandal), and the companies running the show were given exclusive deals to keep it running. That exclusivity should come with a responsibility to stay neutral.

Chad says:

@Mike(again)
“Indeed. This is a point we’ve made many times. But there are numerous sports providers online, so ESPN isn’t violating any common carrier rules or gov’t granted subsidies. So where’s the problem?”

the problem is that once ESPN gets their foot in the door via ISP’s a lot of those other sports providers, smaller and with less funds find themselves left out in the cold, as the ISP’s who embrace things like ESPN360 see it in their best interest to start advertising for said content, slowly shoving out ways to get content from other places. Pretty soon youll have ISP’s making contracts with google, yahoo, and other sites that have talking about and toyed with the old pay cable tv packaging model. if you dont see a problem with this then i dont know what to tell you.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

the problem is that once ESPN gets their foot in the door via ISP’s a lot of those other sports providers, smaller and with less funds find themselves left out in the cold, as the ISP’s who embrace things like ESPN360 see it in their best interest to start advertising for said content, slowly shoving out ways to get content from other places. Pretty soon youll have ISP’s making contracts with google, yahoo, and other sites that have talking about and toyed with the old pay cable tv packaging model. if you dont see a problem with this then i dont know what to tell you.

Um. Read the article. ESPN has been doing this for years, and your predictions haven’t even come close to true.

So, no, I don’t see it as a problem.

argyle sock says:

Re: Re: Re:

> I don’t see it as a problem.

Of course you don’t, why would you? You’re a content provider who would like nothing better than to begin to deploy a similar model. But the rest of us see this for what it is, and attempt to recraft the web into TV 2.0.

If you guys want that sort of model, go make your own private network and leave the internet alone.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Of course you don’t, why would you? You’re a content provider who would like nothing better than to begin to deploy a similar model. But the rest of us see this for what it is, and attempt to recraft the web into TV 2.0.

Nope. I don’t want this model to work for me at all because I think it’s a dumb model. My business model is based on getting as many people to know and understand my ideas as possible. Why would I EVER block myself off from more people? That’s idiotic.

chad says:

@mike

ISPs should not be the bearers of costs for “premium” Internet usage. This is completely the opposite of how the internet is designed to work. If there is a “premium subscription” option for a specific site, that website needs to be able to handle the service on its own, independently of the ISP. Otherwise, we have an unfair Internet connection market on our hands.

ESPN360 has had problems. its been revamped a couple of times. only at&t and verizon customers are footing this bill right now. i bet most dont even know it. i bet if many did there would be an outcry.

Nobody is paying money to subscribe to a website. ESPN tried this and failed to get support because there are so many free things out there (you know, like the internet used to be). so there next stop is to try to make people view it since the pay through single subscribers basically told them to shove it.

ESPN is waiting to get all major ISP’s on board(they will try). then they will make their move. They will try to make ESPN360 a part of the total ESPN package. then they will tell ISP’s that in order for them to continue to be able to show basic ESPN content they must also agree to carry ESPN360 content. If you dont think that this is their plan you need a wake up call.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

ISPs should not be the bearers of costs for “premium” Internet usage. This is completely the opposite of how the internet is designed to work. If there is a “premium subscription” option for a specific site, that website needs to be able to handle the service on its own, independently of the ISP. Otherwise, we have an unfair Internet connection market on our hands.

It’s not “unfair.” It’s what the company decides to offer via it’s own network. The only one it actually hurts is ESPN who stupidly is cutting out a large part of their own market.

I think that you are getting confused over what network neutrality means. It’s a COMMON CARRIER issue. It’s about whether or not the ISPs have a right to BLOCK others. But it has nothing to do with whether or not they pay for separate extra services.

CN says:

This is not the way the net should work...

A lot of people don’t have that many choices in ISPs, so it isn’t always as simple as “just switch”.

Also, if one thing on the net is available through one provider, and the other thing I want is through a different provider, I would be expected to subscribe to both ISPs? That is ridiculous.

I’m not interested in ESPN at all. If my ISP starts paying ESPN, it will be reflected in my bill. Why should I pay so someone else can access ESPN?

Wow look at all the choices says:

Its ok ... we all have $$$ to burn

Hmmmm,
should I go with ISP #1 who has 5 assorted packages of websites to chose from or ISP #2 who only has three limited website packages? This decision could be difficult because ISP #2 is less expensive but it does not carry my favorite search engine. It does however carry many small blogs not covered by ISP #1.

Well … in order to get access to all the sites that I used to frequent I guess that I’ll just have to sign up with them both. This is going to be expensive. And how will I deal with the two different gateways (modems) ?

nasch says:

Re: Its ok ... we all have $$$ to burn

It’s a great point. This is fine if it’s just ESPN, but what if it catches on? If even a third of the biggest content sites decide to go with this model, it would be a huge mess. I’d be interested to hear Carlo’s or some other TechDirt dude’s comments on that issue.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Its ok ... we all have $$$ to burn

It’s a great point. This is fine if it’s just ESPN, but what if it catches on? If even a third of the biggest content sites decide to go with this model, it would be a huge mess

The model won’t catch on. If it does, it will just represent a HUGE opportunity for smart sites who focus on getting as wide a distribution as possible. Hell if a content site is *purposely* taking itself out of my market, that’s HUGE for me.

Then, as those other sites get better and better, the ISP will start to wonder why they bother to pay ESPN or whoever else for content that is available for free… and they’ll dump them.

It’s not a sustainable model, so I’m not worried about it at all.

Chad says:

“It’s just another problem (among many) that would be completely solved by strong broadband competition. If you have eight different companies providing service, you can pick one that doesn’t buy ESPN content.”

exactly. the pipes that are in the ground now are ‘technically’ owned by the taxpayers since these ISP’s got their money through public government funding that WE payed for. Therefore Comcast, Verizon or Cox shouldnt have the exclusive rights to those lines. Anyone should be able to come in, set up shop and offer services.

The cable companies(many who are ISPs) do not like this because if forces them to be competitive. They actually have to WORK at getting a customers business. Imagine that. ESPN has the same problem with the internet. They want to use their muscle to try to facilitate content that no one else can provide like they do(mostly) on cable TV by squelching other competitors on the web and there are a bunch of them.

This is what happens when big greedy-corps are not regulated and watched over. Again ISPs are not and should not be in the business of manipulating content on the web. Their purpose is to provide the access to the internet. Period.

Chad says:

“I think that you are getting confused over what network neutrality means. It’s a COMMON CARRIER issue. It’s about whether or not the ISPs have a right to BLOCK others. But it has nothing to do with whether or not they pay for separate extra services.”

it is a common carrier issue and i dont care what and ISP pays for as far as the internet goes…just as long as the customer does get the trickle down effect of that cost. thats my main issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

telco & isp are not the same in the eyes of the gvnmt

telco csr: I’m sorry sir, but it cost 50 cents more for you to call Pizza Hut than it does to call Dominos.

caller: But they are in the same strip mall, not across town.

telco csr: Sir, I am aware of that. The reason for the charge is because Dominos does not belong to our preferred calling package.

Man from Atlanta says:

Why is the glass half empty?

Why is it that comments are only talking about ISPs? Sure, I guess there’s the spectre of a balkanized ‘net, but ESPN isn’t causing it.

What ESPN has done is crash big cable’s party by allowing a whole new segment of the population to view their content without having to pay for the food network, the shopping channel, or even ESPNs II, III, and Deportes.

My ISP provides features I don’t use and I don’t cry about wanting my $.005 back. It really isn’t worth the time. So hurrah for ESPN; they may be evil in other ways, but in the case of ESPN 360 they are to be congratulated.

Anonymous Coward says:

The real problem -I- have with this can be pointed out by several simple facts.

1) What if no ISP available to me (remember the US is at ‘best’ a duopoly per area ATM) offers the choice on the matter I want? (Either both of the duopolist ‘choices’ having or not having it and my desire being the opposite)

2) Network and content should be separate. You don’t buy a GM car to drive on a GM road; you buy any car you like from anyone you like to drive on the shared network of roads you pay for as a communal resource because that is a natural monopoly*. *(At least it’s the only efficient local solution; I believe that tollways are a symptom of improper reflection of cost versus value to the users of that network. IE a road which is congested begs for more effective capacity (it might be larger exit queues or better light timing for freeway to surface grid), or higher travel speeds, and obviously serves more of the public to thus also demand a higher share of resources.)

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