What the FCC’s Net Neutrality Decision Means for Comcast (and You)

Two Philly-based internet policy experts break down the net neutrality debate — and what the FCC’s decision could mean for the nation’s biggest cable company.

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When the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission repealed Obama-era net neutrality regulations last week, all eyes turned to Comcast.

The Philly-headquartered cable company, the biggest in the country, is smack at the center of the debate over the future of the internet. Everyone wants to know: How will the repeal affect Comcast? What changes will we see from the company? And who will alert consumers of any potential disasters?

We spoke with University of Pennsylvania professors Christopher Yoo and Kevin Werbach, both experts on internet policy. Here’s what we learned.

The net neutrality debate isn’t new. (And here’s a quick summary.)

On Thursday, the FCC repealed rules that require internet service providers to offer equal access to all web content. These rules, known as net neutrality regulations, were implemented in 2015 by the Obama administration. Agency chairman Ajit Pai led the push to dismantle the regulations, largely because, he claims, they impede technological innovation and a competitive telecommunications market.

The FCC’s move was met with harsh resistance. In a poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, roughly 83 percent of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed favored net neutrality regulations, including 75 percent of Republicans who participated, 89 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of independents.

Those who oppose the FCC’s repeal worry that internet service providers like Comcast will now have too much control over the internet. Without the regulations, companies could potentially block certain websites or apps, “throttle” or slow websites based on their content, or prioritize websites, companies or consumers who pay premiums, effectively creating fast and slow internet lanes. Some worry internet service providers could begin splitting and selling access to certain web features in “bundles,” just like cable-TV service, requiring customers to pay more for certain platforms — like social media, for example.

Werbach, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton and a former FCC adviser, said the larger debate over net neutrality dates back at least 15 years. He said the repeal on Thursday was “just another step” in a larger discussion about internet regulations.

The real focus now should be on Congress, he said, which could pass legislation enacting permanent protections for internet consumers.

David Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president, pushed for such measures in a post on the company’s website on Thursday, claiming that the internet service provider community has “reached a general consensus as to the scope of appropriate net neutrality protections” and that Congress should act now to “permanently preserve and solidify net neutrality protections for consumers and to provide ongoing certainty to internet service providers and edge providers alike.”

The company, which has fought the regulations since they were implemented, praised the FCC’s decision on Thursday. Cohen said Comcast has repeatedly promised not to “block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content on the Internet.”

“We will be fully transparent with respect to our practices; and we have not entered into any paid prioritization arrangements, and we have no plans to do so,” he added.

We don’t know what will happen to the internet without the regulations — we only know what could happen.

Werbach said “any judgement about how [the FCC’s decision] will affect Comcast or internet access in general depends on what you think is going to happen next.”

His point: We simply don’t know how this decision will play out. Plus, we probably won’t see any major effects in the next year, Werbach said – largely due to the fact that more than a dozen state attorneys have already filed a lawsuit over the repeal.

Yoo, a law professor and the director of Penn Law’s Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition, is optimistic. He said that without the regulations, internet service providers will find “more innovative ways to appeal to customers,” which could “create substantial benefits” for consumers.

He added that cable companies like Comcast will now be able to better specialize their services and cater to consumers who want – or use – different things.

“There’s an implicit assumption baked into the net neutrality argument that all websites are created equal, when in practice most of us go disproportionately to a small number of locations,” Yoo said. “I would willingly pay for better service to those locations, even if it didn’t give me better service to every possible location.”

Plus, he argued, people and organizations using a significant amount of internet bandwidth (like video-streaming sites such as Netflix, which opposed the FCC’s decision) have an obligation to pay more than those who use less bandwidth or fewer services.

“The alternative is to make my grandma, who is an email user, pay as much as the bandwidth hog who uses video every day,” Yoo said.

But Werbach said we shouldn’t necessarily trust that Comcast will do what is best for customers. He stressed that it’s difficult to predict issues that could result from the FCC’s decision – which is why the FCC previously had the power to conduct case-by-case analyses under the net neutrality regulations.

“The real challenge of this is that business practices will always evolve and technology will always evolve,” Werbach said. “No set of rules will completely account for what happens in the future. The question is, does the FCC have the power to address things that are happening in the future?

“That’s what is problematic about what they did yesterday. They acknowledge that there can be problems … but we are going to remove any capability we have to do something about it.”

Plus, Werbach said, there’s a flaw in the argument that market forces will incite Comcast to do what customers what: There’s limited competition in telecommunications market, which means major forces like Comcast could have less of an impetus to act in consumers’ best interest – or maintain transparency if they do not.

“While companies like Comcast don’t spend all their time thinking about how to screw their customers … part of the reason net neutrality has reached such a fever pitch is theres a feeling that this market is broken,” Werbach said. “This is not a classic, well-functioning market where companies are pushed relentlessly to offer better things to their customers.”

That being said, transparency is a key issue – and we should be vigilant.

Werbach pointed out that Comcast doesn’t exactly have a clean record when it comes to transparency. In 2008, the FCC ruled that Comcast had throttled traffic to BitTorrent, a high-quality video service viewed by many as a threat to Comcast’s video-on-demand service. Comcast originally denied the accusations in 2007. Eventually, the company admitted that it interfered with BitTorrent connections but challenged the FCC, and the commission’s ruling was overturned in 2010.

In his proposal to eliminate net neutrality rules last month, Pai, the FCC chairman, attempted to downplay the issue, claiming in a footnote that “there are strong arguments that Comcast interfered with BitTorrent in an attempt to manage its network, rather than to disadvantage [online video distributors].

The situation still serves as a red flag – and sheds light on the importance of vigilance over companies like Comcast and potentially harmful practices like torrenting.

“What we’ve seen so far is that there’s enough of a light being shined on these practices and enough concern about them that most issues have come out,” Werbach said. “But there’s no question there is a transparency gap, and we need to have better information about what’s happening on these networks.”

Still, despite fears, it’s not necessarily the end of the internet as we know it.

Neither Yoo nor Werbach were necessarily pessimistic on Thursday – and both agreed that the FCC’s decision does not spell immediate doom. Werbach called Comcast a “very smart, strategic, thoughtful company” that “doesn’t engage in business practices in a knee-jerk reaction.”

Both he and Yoo said Comcast employees are well aware of the public’s general concern about broadband discrimination – meaning we’re unlikely to see any dramatic changes in the near future. Yoo said that if history has taught us anything about the internet, it’s that it’s “more robust than we think.”

Werbach agreed.

“Ultimately, this fight is not over,” he said. “This is the battle over the future of the internet. There’s a lot at stake, and it’s going to unfold over a long time.”