Almost Nobody Believes Comcast on Net Neutrality. Why?

The company faces deep skepticism over its loyalty to the "Open Internet."

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Comcast wants you to know it really, really believes in net neutrality*. But almost nobody on the Internet believes them. Why is that?

*For a quick overview of net neutrality, our friends at Vox have an explainer.

“We have publicly supported the FCC adopting new, strong Open Internet rules,” the company said in a sarcastically headlined blog post Tuesday signed by Executive Vice President David Cohen. “We have stated on numerous occasions that we believe legally enforceable rules should continue to include strong transparency, no blocking, and anti-discrimination provisions.  We don’t prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes, and have no plans to do so.”

There is one small caveat: Comcast does not support reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications utility — a move that observers say would make it easier for the feds to enforce net neutrality, and a stance that was backed by President Obama this week. “Doing so would harm future innovation and investment in broadband and is not necessary to put in place strong and enforceable Open Internet protections,” Cohen said in the blog post.

Here’s the bigger problem: Almost nobody on the Internet seems to believe Comcast when it says it supports net neutrality. Why?

Three big reasons, aside from the general — and possibly unfair — love of having Comcast as a villain:

A) Comcast is legally required to support net neutrality until 2018, and could conceivably change its mind after that.

B) Comcast’s treatment of Netflix (see below) seems to belie the idea it won’t offer faster and slower lanes of service to different customers, even though the company says a different principle applied in that case.

C) Comcast’s suggested path to creating enforceable net neutrality rules is one that most people believe has been blocked off by the courts.

Time magazine responds to Cohen’s post by saying “Comcast just trolled us all on net neutrality”:

Cohen’s post claims Comcast agrees with Obama’s goals for an open Internet — no blocking content, no slowing down content, more transparency about network practices and no paid fast lanes. Cohen goes on to say that Comcast disagrees with the President on how those rules should be enforced. There’s a wide gulf here: Obama only made news Monday because he called for the Internet to be reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act, a bold move that would categorize Internet providers as “common carriers” and trigger an all-out legislative and judicial war between telecoms, the FCC and advocacy groups.

Comcast, meanwhile, says the Internet should fall under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which gives the government far less authority to regulate Comcast’s business. So there’s no real agreement here at all.

That aside, the problem with Comcast’s Title II/Section 706 logic is that the FCC tried to use non-Title II authority to enforce its Open Internet rules starting back in 2010. But the courts ruled that wasn’t a valid approach, because the agency had previously and explicitly decided not to classify broadband under Title II — meaning the agency starved itself of the regulatory power it would need to legally enforce those rules. Since that ruling, the FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler has been scrambling to find a way to enforce the Open Internet rules without running afoul of the courts.

Gigaom adds its own skepticism:

Essentially, Comcast is offering to act in good faith — and really, there’s no reason to assume they won’t. Until 2018, at least.

In their acquisition of NBC Universal, Comcast had to agree to play nice with net neutrality guidelines like the ones laid out by President Obama until 2018. That’s forced, mind you. We’re not saying it’s the only reason Comcast is “agreeing” with Obama today, but that narrative could change drastically in a few years’ time.

It’s also worth noting Comcast was throttling Netflix, until a peering agreement could be reached. Though not a direct-to-consumer charge, it’s been argued that Comcast — in throttling Netflix and holding their service hostage — created their own brand of tiered service.

Not everybody’s a skeptic. The free-market Wall Street Journal is backing Comcast in this showdown:

Broadband is among the most popular, fast-growing, profitable products any business sells. Why would companies that sell it provoke fights with customers and regulators by behaving in ways that deprive customers of what is by now everyone’s clear and settled expectations of how the product should behave?

So why is Mr. Obama promoting strict regulation? Because liberal mau-mau groups like regulation. It’s that simple: If government controls business and they control government—well, you get the idea.

Cohen, meanwhile, is left to protest that he really, really means his support of net neutrality.

“This is not game playing or sophistry on our part. We believe in having strong and enforceable Open Internet rules. We just believe that the courts have laid out a clear legal path to accomplishing that result under Section 706 which will enable the country to avoid the adverse investment and innovation impacts of Title II,” he wrote in the blog post. “ Being for net neutrality and against Title II is completely consistent. People can be for net neutrality and against Title II – that simply represents agreement on the why, but not the how.”

Perhaps, but the lesson seems clear: Comcast is going to have to do a lot more convincing if it wants the public — the Internet-savvy part of it, anyway — to believe that it is really on the side of net neutrality.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.