The giant cable and Internet company Comcast has been trying to paint itself as a staunch defender of network neutrality. This effort has been wholly misleading, and never so much as in the company's response Tuesday to President Obama's outspoken defense of the principle, when it issued a statement headlined:
President Obama on Monday called for a ban on blocking or throttling of online content providers by Internet service providers such as Comcast, and an "explicit ban on paid prioritization," which enables big, wealthy online services -- think Netflix or Google -- to pay ISPs for preferential carriage to your home or office. By extension, of course, that shoulders smaller services aside.
"No service should be stuck in a 'slow lane' because it does not pay a fee," Obama said, concisely articulating the principle of net neutrality.
Most importantly, he called for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a common carrier "telecommunications service" under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, reversing a bad decision the FCC made in 2002, when it removed that designation and thus throttled its own regulatory authority.
Comcast's reply, issued under the name of Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, is a model of disingenuous corp-speak. "We are on the record as agreeing with every point" the president made, Cohen said. "Free and open Internet. We agree -- and that is our practice." The same goes, he added, for "No blocking ... No throttling ... No paid prioritization." Cohen said, "We don't prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes, and have no plans to do so."
A couple of points here. First, it's true that Comcast hews to most of these principles -- at the moment. That's because it's legally required to do so until January 2018, as an explicit condition imposed by the FCC when it approved Comcast's purchase of NBCUniversal in 2011.
Moreover, this spending plainly isn't enough to give all its customers world-class service. Comcast's Cohen asserted, in the immediate aftermath of President Obama's statement, that the firm was "the first to roll out America's fastest broadband speeds across the country."
Interestingly, one community that does offer vigorous competition is San Francisco, which may explain why New America found Comcast service there to be less bad than elsewhere. (It also may explain why Comcast subjected Ryan Block, a Bay Area Comcast customer trying to switch, to one of the worst customer service calls ever.) Comcast's proposed merger with Time Warner Cable would only enhance its competitive position, which means it's likely to result in an even less aggressive rollout of top speeds, and higher prices.
"This is not game playing or sophistry on our part," Comcast stated Tuesday of its purported devotion to network neutrality. As a rule of thumb, one should assume that when a big corporation feels the need to provide such assurance, the truth is exactly the opposite.