from the yeah-good-luck-with-that dept
A coalition of cities has filed a desperate, and likely doomed, lawsuit (pdf) against streaming providers like Netflix and Disney. In it, the cities proclaim that they are somehow owed 5 percent of gross annual revenue. Why? Apparently they believe that because these streaming services travel over telecom networks that utilize the public right of way, they’re somehow owed a cut:
“Defendants transmit video programming to Indiana subscribers using Internet protocol and other technologies. When doing so, Defendants transmit their programming through facilities located at least in part in public rights of way within the geographic boundaries of Indiana Units, including public rights of way located within Plaintiffs’ geographic boundaries. Therefore, Defendants are required by the VSF Act to pay the Plaintiffs—and all other Indiana Units in which Defendants transmit video programming through facilities located at least in part in a public right-of-way—franchise fees.”
To be fair, cities have long been solidly screwed by the telecom and cable industry, which in the early aughts effectively gutted most local (town, city level) franchise agreements. Basically, phone companies like AT&T and Verizon, looking to get into the TV business whined incessantly about how unfair it was to have to do things like expand broadband and TV service evenly, provide a few public access TV channels, and give local municipalities fair compensation for using city utility poles and public rights of way.
So, highlighting the very real occasions where city leaders made unreasonable demands (not to mention the hassle of striking numerous municipality agreements), they lobbied to shift most franchise control to the state level, claiming this would result in greater efficiency, more competition and lower prices for consumers. All things that certainly sound superficially reasonable. Especially since a minority of cities really were pains in the ass in terms of making difficult demands before telecom companies could secure a cable franchise agreement.
The problem: because state legislatures are more efficiently corruptible by AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast lobbyists, most of these new state agreements by and large screwed cities over, gutted most consumer protections, obliterated local franchise revenue, neutered most of the benefits more local agreements provided (like even broadband deployment), and resulted in new state agreements that were little more than telecom legislative wishlists. And, if you hadn’t noticed, TV prices never dropped, which was purportedly the whole point. Incumbent telecom giants simply pocketed the proceeds and went on their merry way.
Fast forward to now, and cities are desperately trying to cling back some modicum of control (and lost revenues) in this lopsided equation. But as consumer rights lawyer Harold Feld tells Ars Technica, dumb lawsuits like this one aren’t the solution, especially since any franchise agreements that do remain don’t apply to streaming providers in the slightest:
“I find it extremely unlikely this lawsuit will prevail,” Harold Feld, a longtime telecom attorney and senior VP of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars. “The [federal] Communications Act defines terms such as ‘cable system’ and ‘cable operator’ in physical terms.”
As Feld noted, US law defines a cable system as “a facility, consisting of a set of closed transmission paths and associated signal generation, reception, and control equipment that is designed to provide cable service.” Local franchising rules and fees are based on cities’ authority to manage their local rights of way.
“Netflix is clearly not a cable operator” and is therefore not subject to local franchising rules, Feld said. “Furthermore, because broadband is not considered a cable service, Netflix does not offer video programming ‘over a cable system,’ which would be required to make it a cable operator.”
At this point the state and federal legislative and regulatory field has been shifted so completely in favor of the biggest corporations (be they Netflix or AT&T), municipalities often find themselves increasingly powerless by design. And as COVID-19 decimates budgets, this desperation is more and more likely to result in “creative” efforts to claw back revenues. Unfortunately, that shipped sailed quite some time ago, and without significant state and federal lobbying/influence reform (not to mention a massive Congressional shakeup), isn’t likely to change anytime soon.