Consumer advocacy groups are already mounting their campaign to try to kill Comcast's $45 billion bid to buy Time Warner Cable. But the deal might actually be good for one of consumer advocates' top causes: net neutrality.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Communications Commission's net-neutrality rules last month. The rules, formally called the Open Internet Order, required Internet service providers to treat all websites equally. Liberals and consumer advocates fear that with the rules gone, Internet providers could start slowing down access to sites like Google and Netflix unless the sites pay for special Internet "fast lanes." The providers could even block access to particular sites altogether.
But even with the rules thrown out, there is one major broadband provider that won't be able to discriminate against Internet traffic anytime soon: Comcast. To receive approval from the FCC three years ago to buy NBC-Universal, Comcast agreed to a slew of conditions, including promising to abide by the agency's net-neutrality rules until at least 2018 no matter what happened in the courts.
Comcast said Thursday that it will extend that commitment to all Time Warner Cable subscribers if the merger is approved.
So while the federal courts have said the FCC overstepped its legal authority with the net-neutrality rules, about 30 million U.S. households would still be protected from online discrimination if Comcast and Time Warner are allowed to merge.
"Those Internet conditions would apply Day One," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said on a conference call with reporters. "I think it's unarguable that's better than where the court just vacated that rule for every other" Internet service provider.
The deal would also be an opportunity for the FCC to force the companies to accept new agreements, such as extending the net-neutrality commitment well beyond 2018.
David L. Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, suggested that the company is open to negotiating additional conditions, including the length of the net-neutrality commitment. He added that Comcast supports the net-neutrality regulations and plans to work with the FCC to rewrite the rules in a way that can survive court challenges.
"Well before 2018, I think the FCC is going to have a new regime in place to provide the same level of consumer protection and consumer benefit that the original Open Internet Order provided," he said.
But consumer advocates argued that net-neutrality conditions won't be enough to outweigh the competitive harm of the deal.
"I think net-neutrality rules are important, which is why they should be industry-wide and shouldn't expire after a few years," said John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney for Public Knowledge. "I think even saying that these conditions would be 'better than nothing' significantly oversells the case."
Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, said the FCC should enact tough net-neutrality regulations, not try to negotiate for a temporary commitment from one company.
"We don't need a few more years of applying the old rules to a big company or two — especially not in return for a near-nationwide cable TV and ISP monopoly," he said.