Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon stand to make billions next year whether the U.S. ditches the rules mandating network neutrality or not. But if the Federal Communications Commission does go through with lifting restrictions that currently prevent internet providers from charging websites for prioritized access to users, these companies could pocket even more. Which is one reason why Comcast has been so supportive of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to undo net neutrality, which could be enacted as early as January.
What could an internet with fast lanes and slow lanes look like? For one thing, it could mean that local museums and nonprofits start migrating all their web listings to Yelp and Google—rather than counting on people to visit their own, much slower websites—because those platforms pay companies like Comcast to load faster. It could be an internet that looks much more uniform and boring—and one that is even more lucrative for internet providers.
Or maybe that’s just the pessimistic case. After all, Comcast promises that it has no plans “to block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content.” Thank goodness.
Anyone who has ever paid a bill to or waited for customer service from Comcast knows why it is one of America’s most detested companies, its recent efforts to improve its image notwithstanding. While Comcast says its customers will “enjoy strong net neutrality protections,” it hasn’t explicitly said it won’t offer paid prioritization, which is how the company would most likely monetize its new ability to legally muck with internet traffic. In other words, Comcast might not choke or slow service to any website, but it could speed access to destinations that pay for the priority service. The company’s promises should sound familiar. As Jon Brodkin pointed out in Ars Technica on Monday, back when the FCC was crafting the network neutrality rules in 2014, Comcast said it had no plans to enact paid prioritization, either. “We don’t prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes, and have no plans to do so,” a Comcast executive wrote in a blog post that year.
But Comcast’s line has changed in an important way. In a comment to the FCC from earlier this year, the company said it is time for the FCC to adopt a “more flexible” approach to paid prioritization, and noted in a blog post at the time that the FCC should consider net neutrality principles that prevent “no anticompetitive paid prioritization.” In other words, not necessarily all paid prioritization. The inclusion of “anti-competitive” could signal that the company does in fact hope to offer fast-lane service, but at the same price for all. And it might be a price that say, Fox News and the New York Times can afford, but one that smaller outlets can’t.
That Comcast’s language is changing is one reason to distrust its promises regarding net neutrality, but its track record is an even bigger one. The company has been caught red-handed lying about its traffic discrimination in the past. In 2007, for example, when Comcast was found intermittently blocking users’ ability to use BitTorrent, the company made numerous false claims about its network interference before finally admitting its bad behavior and halting the disruptions.
And once Pai’s proposal becomes federal policy, internet providers won’t even feel a need to make false claims about how they discriminate against traffic anymore. They’ll just need to be clear that they reserve the right to do so, since the new net neutrality rules would only require these companies to be transparent about their business practices, while otherwise taking an anything-goes stance.
Right now, Comcast and its peers are waging a full-on, feel-good messaging campaign to get the net neutrality rules off the books. They wouldn’t be doing that if they planned to abide by open-internet principles even if the federal guidelines are changed. For the moment, Comcast is locked into an agreement to abide by net neutrality until September 2018, part of the conditions it agreed to when the feds approved its merger with NBC/Universal. But after that, all bets are off.