There were two recent decisions by the Supreme Court that hold particular importance to me. The first is that of Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. This is the case of cell phone searches by police without a warrant. It took me by complete surprise that the court found police can not search cell phones of those they have arrested without warrants. The court understands how important cell phones are to citizens, and how much information those cell phones hold for all of us. A cell phone is not like a wallet. Instead, a cell phone is more akin to — paraphrase Justice Roberts — a device we use so often that a visitor from Mars may not be able to discern it from any other part of our biology. (Roberts is an expert in law, not Astrobiology, so give him a break.)
While I do not think that this court should be celebrated for making one correct decision among the many, many, many, incorrect decisions they have previously made (corporations are people, too!), I do think that this one decision should be celebrated.
However, another decision made by the court leaves me absolutely at a loss for understanding. In the case of ABC v. Aereo, ABC alleged that Aereo, by providing consumers with an antenna for broadcast TV stations, as well as a cloud DVR, was acting in an illegal manner. Aerea is offering consumers a way to skip getting an antenna, or converter, and also skip having to pay for a cable or satellite subscription in order to get a higher level of broadcast TV (by higher-level, I mean a service that is not just the TV channels, but something that also includes the TV channels and a DVR, or something of that ilk).
The court decided that Aereo was not, in fact, able to rebroadcast these channels to consumers. Now, forget the fact that this is another case in a long line where the court is finding not in the best interests of citizens or consumers, but instead of corporations. Forget where the court is framing this as a copyright issue, because it’s really not — ABC and the other big three are free over-the-air as it is. Forget that, yes, Aereo is offering a service that is free and charging you for it, and it probably should be paying distribution fees to the major networks. Forget that ABC and FOX have been crying that they may no longer offer free TV if they didn’t win this case. It’s an issue of how content is distributed and the ways that we have to legally get that content.
I am currently trying to cut my cable cord. My cable bill is out of control. I get a handful of channels that I will never watch and a whole bunch of junk. Sure, it offers services like Ondemand as well as phone and tablet apps, but the majority of shows on these services can be found elsewhere. With my cable provider you can even get House of Cards for something like $20 per season! You could also get Netflix for $8 a month and watch both seasons in a binge-watching weekend. What I’m trying to say is that Cable and Dish companies are attempting as hard as they can to get money from you, the consumer. And one of the major reasons that they want to get money from you is because of the channel fees that they have to pay. One of these fees is from broadcast networks for cable companies to rebroadcast their channels. There are fees, on top of fees, on top of fees. and all of these fees get passed onto the consumer.
It’s no wonder, then, that consumers are switching to programming like Amazon and Netflix in order to receive their TV. And, until this week, a service like Aereo in order to get their broadcast television. But broadcasters and cable giants attempt to block these services at every turn. Internet firms challenge net neutrality in order to put pressure on Netflix and Amazon. Broadcast giants sue Aereo in order to stop them from rebroadcasting TV channels in a way that consumers like.
Now, it is awfully conspiracy theory-ish to say that the big cable companies and broadcasters are attempting to box consumers into a one-choice outlet — you get Dish or Cable and you will like it! — but it sure does feel that way.
The idea that consumers deserve to get their content the way they want, and should be able to pay what they want for it, is also the idea behind the Amazon and Hachett battle. Consumer choice is important, and consumer choice is turning away from the vast infrastructure that these giant corporations have built up over the years. We can see it happening in real time to the Newspaper and magazine industry, two places that are continually folding under the pressure of consumer demand for online news and their inability to figure out how to provide that service on the new medium.
One way or another, consumer choice and innovation will force the hand of cable, publishing, and broadcasting corporations. They will have to change their practices, start-ups will be able to thrive because they offer what consumers want, and they will have to relinquish some of their control over their industries. No amount of court decisions or attempts to change federal law will be able to stop consumers from getting their content the way they want. Yes, there will be battles, because corporations are so entrenched with the infrastructure and profits models that they have, but consumers will eventually come out on top.
It’s just unfortunate that we must suffer bloated cable bills and lack of choice until that day comes.