Comcast subtly backs off promise of no paid prioritization

Comcast exec David Cohen
David Cohen, Comcast's top regulatory affairs executive, has subtly changed the cable company's stated position on paid prioritization of internet traffic.

Comcast has subtly backed off a promise not to establish paid prioritization of internet traffic, with the FCC set to roll back Title II regulations next month.

Ars Technica first noticed the subtle change in rhetoric, comparing company statements made in 2014 to Comcast’s more recently established position. The cable company used to draw a hard line, flatly promising not to establish paid prioritization of internet traffic. But it’s more recent statements split hairs with pledges that are more vague, declaring that it won’t "discriminate against lawful content" or impose "anticompetitive paid prioritization."

In 2014, while still in the middle of working out deal conditions for its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal, and with a Democratic-led FCC about to establish Title II regs that would classify internet service providers like Comcast as more easily regulated “common carriers” instead of “information services," the No. 1 U.S. cable company clearly denied intentions to accept payments for better access to its network.

“To be clear, Comcast has never offered paid prioritization, we are not offering it today, and we're not considering entering into any paid prioritization creating fast lane deals with content owners,” said David Cohen, Comcast’s top regulatory affairs executive, back in May 2014.

Urging the FCC to change its Title II trajectory, Cohen also promised that Comcast wouldn’t engage in blocking or throttling of internet traffic.

Now, with the NBCU stipulations ready to sunset next year, and with Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai poised to roll back the landmark Title II in an FCC Commission vote next month, Comcast is still promising not to block or throttle internet traffic.

But as Cohen’s more recent position statement released in July indicates, Comcast seems to have backed off its promise on paid prioritization. 

“We do not and will not block, slow down or discriminate against lawful content,” Cohen wrote, leaving out the specific reference to paid prioritization. 

Describing the FCC regimen Comcast would like to see, Cohen added, “In addition to reclassifying broadband internet access service as an information service, these FCC efforts can include the adoption of clearly defined net neutrality principles—no blocking, no throttling, no anticompetitive paid prioritization and full transparency.” 

Responding to FierceCable, Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said the cable company has no plans to enter into any paid prioritization deals. But she reiterated the new language. 

"Comcast hasn’t entered into any paid prioritization agreements. Period," Fitzmaurice said. "And we have no plans to do so. No matter what the skeptics say, you can’t accurately convert an unequivocal statement that Comcast has no plans to enter into any paid prioritization arrangement into plans for paid prioritization. As we've made clear consistently, regardless of how the FCC rules turn out, we will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content.”

Of course, under a new FCC regimen with no rules regarding the establishment for so-called internet “fast lanes,” it would be up to Comcast to define what "unlawful content" or "anticompetitive paid prioritization" means.

And as ArsTechnica also noted, it would be up to Comcast if it also wanted to change its position on blocking and throttling. 

The FCC Commission is set to vote on its Title II rollback on Dec. 14.