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Comcast chimes in, and sounds like AT&T

On the subject of open-Internet rules, Comcast is sounding a lot more like AT&T.

The cable giant's top lobbyist told journalists Monday that the Federal Communications Commision should consider whether any new rules would also apply to Web companies such as Google that create content and provide services for Internet users.

"The notion is that if you are trying to protect a free and open Internet, you need to protect it at every layer of the Internet," said Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen. Comcast is in the middle challenging an FCC decision last year that the cable giant violated Internet access rules by allegedly blocking access to the file-sharing service BitTorrent.

The idea of including Web content companies under a new policy has been criticized by public interest groups that say it is a diversionary tactic to undermine the FCC's move toward stronger and broader Internet discrimination rules.

But Cohen's comments are similar to those offered by AT&T, which has been pushing against stronger rules that would prevent Internet service providers from blocking or delaying legal Internet content.

"To the extent 'net neutrality' is animated by a concern about ostensible Internet 'gatekeepers,' that concern must necessarily apply to application, service, and content providers," Robert Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulations, wrote to the FCC's Sharon Gillett in a letter last month complaining about Google's voice service blocking conference calls and connections to some rural areas.

Google and other applications service providers have said such a proposal doesn't make sense because net neutrality was meant to apply to network operators, hence the term "network neutrality." Eric Schmidt told reporters and the editorial board of The Post that any regulation of Internet companies could be disastrous.

Inside the FCC, there is debate on how the new rules should apply but some sources say the guidelines currently in place were only meant to apply to companies at the network infrastructure level (ISPs). And the FCC, a communications services regulator, doesn't have jurisdiction over Web applications providers like Google and eBay, they say. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the FCC is in the process of collecting comments in its rule-making process.

Cohen, however, pointed to Google Voice, which is blocking some calls on its call connect service, as an example of a service that appears to violate net neutrality rules. AT&T has filed letters to the FCC asking for action on Google Voice's alleged violation of telecom rules. Google says it isn't a network operator and isn't violating open-Internet guidelines.

After the media lunch, I talked to Cohen about what appeared to me to be a disconnect in the company's lobbying push: Comcast has previously expressed support for regulators using a light touch so why is it now raising questions that could lead to a broader regulatory framework on net neutrality?

"All I'm saying is that it's appropriate to ask the questions. I don't think anything should be done -- at our level or at the Google level -- and I think the market works to correct itself," Cohen said.

"But let’s imagine Comcast's Digital Voice service blocking conference calls. People would go ballistic. We would get our heads handed to us. But they are doing it. So why shouldn't the question be asked," he said.

In the end, is there a new net neutrality policy Comcast could live with? He said yes, but it doesn't sound a lot different from what's exists.

"Do I think there can be something that comes out of it that doesn’t threaten our business? Yes. I can envision some type of light regulatory touch of formalizing principles and rules and having an expansive definition of reasonable network management and clearly exempting private managed services of the network. This basically enables our network to work that doesn’t turn the world topsy turvey."

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 26, 2009; 5:15 PM ET
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Despite Ms. Kang's highly biased reporting, the fact is that Comcast and AT&T are right. ISPs have never acted as "gatekeepers," but Google has. The Church of Scientology, for example, has gotten Google to suppress sites which are critical of it. And Google gives groups whose specific political agendas it supports free advertising with high bids per click, giving them better placement on the page and a huge financial advantage over groups on the other side of the same issue. (This is true, ironically, of "network neutrality" groups, which have received "Google grants" amounting to millions of dollars' worth of free advertising.) What's more, Google is a monopoly while there is vibrant competition among ISPs. There is no need to regulate ISPs, but there are very strong arguments for reining in monopolist Google.

Posted by: squirma | October 27, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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