For years, internet service providers in the US have maintained that they support net neutrality while the industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy it. The big guys still make that claim while they fight efforts to enshrine the open web into law. Now, a Comcast exec has given us a little more clarity on what exceptions it's looking for.
As Ars Technica points out, the think tank Free State Foundation held its annual Telecom Policy Conference on Tuesday, and Comcast's ever-delightful Senior Executive VP David Cohen was one of the speakers.
Telecoms are currently scrambling to get some sort of law through Congress that will permanently enshrine ISPs' ability to block or throttle content and offer paid prioritisation (aka "fast lanes"). Under the recently repealed Title II net neutrality protections, that would have been mostly against the rules.
Democrats are currently pushing to make Title II protections the law of the land, and ISPs know they might have a limited time to get some lobbyist-crafted legislation signed before a possible Republican wipeout in the midterm elections this November.
So, on Tuesday, Cohen was ready to talk compromise. "How about if we agree to a prohibition on paid prioritisation and we have a limited exception created in some way for this concept of specialised services," Cohen suggested.
Comcast had an official statement on its website for years that clearly said that it "doesn't prioritise Internet traffic or create paid fast lanes." The net neutrality rules aren't officially off the books yet, and Comcast isn't offering paid prioritisation. But it removed that paid fast lanes line, along with others, from its net neutrality pledge the day after the FCC announced its intent to kill Title II protections.
Cohen's finally giving us a glimpse of why — Comcast wants some wiggle room for "specialised services."
What's a specialised service, you're surely asking. We don't know, exactly. Cohen explained that "there is a recognition that something might come along that is not anti-competitive, that is pro-consumer, that is a specialised service available not to every user of the internet, [and] that would be in consumers' interests and in the public interest." So, it's future tech, I guess.
We asked Comcast for some examples of specialised services that could receive an exemption for an internet fast lane in Cohen's hypothetical legislation. A spokesperson sent us the following:
At the conference, David Cohen made the point that if reasonable people sat down at the table, there were compromises that could be reached on all subjects. He took the example of paid prioritisation and said that he thought a reasonable compromise could be a ban on paid prioritisation but with a narrow authorization for specialised services.
We followed up with Comcast and asked if this meant that it would get behind legislation that simply transfers over the limited exemptions for paid prioritisation that exist in the Wheeler order. We received no reply. But Comcast's acknowledgment that this sort of provision for special services already existed in the regulations that the FCC repealed in December seems like either progress.
At one point during the conference, Cisco Global Government Affairs VP Jeffrey Campbell named remote surgery and real-time video chats as examples of when paid prioritisation would come in handy. But Chris Lewis, from the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, countered that "the 2015 rules had an allowance for reasonable network management, which is just what Jeff was describing: the ability for a network to say that things that are in real time need to be managed properly by the ISP."
The rules allowed the kind of room to grow with specialised services, but they would have restricted prioritisation of, say, Comcast's Robot Surgery Inc. over AT&T's Robot Surgery & Sons. Neither of those services exist, but in David Cohen's vision of the future, they presumably could.
More likely than not, Comcast isn't looking for some limited breathing room to accommodate innovation. It wants a big-arse loophole that it can walk through any time it wants. Even if the rule was limited, Comcast would just keep moving the goalposts just as it did with its net neutrality "pledge."
If you're a telecom policy wonk and want to see the full debate, it starts around the two-hour mark here. For everyone else, believe nothing Comcast says. There's a reason it's more hated by Americans than both Monsanto and The Weinstein Company.