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Sen. Al Franken: Comcast buying Time Warner Cable could threaten 'open nature' of internet

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Senator Al Franken made his feelings on Comcast's buyout of Time Warner Cable known almost as soon as the deal was announced. Last month, he expressed "serious reservations" about the proposed acquisition. Today he's gone a step further and sent a letter to the Department of Justice that implores federal regulators to carefully weigh net neutrality and the internet's "balance of power" as they scrutinize the purchase.

"The Internet has been a platform for innovation and economic growth since its inception," Franken says. "It also has connected Americans in unprecedented ways, facilitating the free exchange of information and ideas. Simply put, the Internet belongs to the people, not to huge corporations." In other words, the internet is a utility. Franken has asked the Justice Department to include "a thorough evaluation of open internet issues" in its pending analysis of the deal. His full remarks can be found below.

Update: Comcast has provided The Verge with a statement highlighting the Open Internet rules that the company will abide by until 2018. Further, Comcast says it expects the FCC to implement similar rules that will apply to all major internet providers by the time its current deal — which came as part of its NBCUniversal acquisition — expires. We've included Comcast's statement below Senator Franken's.

I am concerned that Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable could compromise the open nature of the Internet, which is one of the reasons I oppose the deal.  I am writing to request that you to take this important issue into account when you evaluate the proposal’s anticompetitive effects.

The Internet is an open marketplace where everyone can participate on equal footing, regardless of one’s wealth or influence – and I believe that’s the way it should be.  The Internet has been a platform for innovation and economic growth since its inception.  It also has connected Americans in unprecedented ways, facilitating the free exchange of information and ideas.  Simply put, the Internet belongs to the people, not to huge corporations.  Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable could disrupt this balance of power, resulting in higher costs and fewer choices for consumers.

Net neutrality protects consumers by prohibiting broadband service providers, such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, from picking and choosing which lawful Internet content will reach homes and offices across the country.  Settlement-free peering arrangements perform much the same purpose, allowing Internet traffic to flow freely among backbone and last-mile networks without interference from the corporations that control the infrastructure.

Because of net neutrality and settlement-free peering, the website for a small hardware store in rural Minnesota loads as quickly as the website for a big, national chain; Vikings fans can read about their team on the website of their choice, whether that’s ESPN or a blog written by a local fan; and an email from a constituent in Duluth gets to me as quickly as an email from my bank.  Without open Internet protections, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and other broadband service providers could block, degrade, or charge extra fees to transmit Internet traffic.  As I wrote in a 2010 letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), absent sufficient protections, "Comcast is free to use its control of its high speed Internet service to block or impede content that it finds in any way competitive with its own content."

When Comcast acquired NBC Universal in 2011, the FCC echoed my concerns, stating that "Comcast will have the incentive and ability to hinder competition from other [online video distributors] . . . through a variety of anticompetitive strategies," including "blocking, degrading, or otherwise violating open Internet principles with respect to the delivery of unaffiliated online video to Comcast broadband subscribers."  In fact, Comcast previously had been caught doing just that, resulting in an FCC order concluding that "Comcast’s conduct poses a substantial threat to both the open character and efficient operation of the Internet, and is not reasonable."  The FCC also questioned Comcast’s veracity during the proceedings, concluding that "Comcast’s claim that it has always disclosed its network management practices to its customers is simply untrue."  More recent reports indicate that Comcast has begun to change its relationships with backbone networks or popular content providers who need access to Comcast’s millions of customers.

While widespread practices of this nature might benefit Comcast’s bottom line, they could be very harmful to consumers and small businesses.  To address some of these concerns, the FCC required Comcast to abide by net neutrality rules as a condition of Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal.  Comcast now touts those net neutrality conditions as a reason to support the corporation’s bid to acquire Time Warner Cable.  For example, in a recent memorandum, Comcast’s Executive Vice President wrote that the "Open Internet protections will be extended to millions of additional broadband customers" as a result of Comcast’s proposed acquisition and that "the new company’s broadband consumers will enjoy the enforceable protections of the no blocking and non-discrimination rules that were put in place by the FCC."  He reiterated this point in at least one recent interview with the media, and I expect Comcast to make a similar case to the Justice Department.

Comcast’s statements tell only part of the story, however.  First, Comcast’s net neutrality obligations expire in January 2018, which raises the question of what happens after that time.  Second, the FCC’s net neutrality conditions do not extend to peering arrangements.

I am very concerned that Comcast could use its clout in the broadband market to dictate the content consumers receive and the prices they pay, and these concerns are only intensified by Comcast’s proposal to acquire Time Warner Cable.  With more than 20 million customers, Comcast already is the nation’s dominant Internet service provider, controlling about a quarter of the national broadband market and a much higher percentage of the market in many of the local areas in which it operates.  By acquiring Time Warner Cable, Comcast would extend its reach substantially, covering millions of additional customers.  This would give Comcast even more leverage to manipulate Internet traffic to serve its own corporate interests.

I therefore request that you include a thorough evaluation of open Internet issues in your analysis of Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable.  I look forward to working with you on this important issue.

Statement from Comcast:

The Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction will bring millions more Americans under the Open Internet rules as soon as our deal closes. We fully expect that the FCC will have in place Open Internet rules that will apply to all companies by the time our current condition from the NBCUniversal deal expires in 2018. That condition was always meant as a bridge to enforceable rules that would be applicable to all companies in the industry. Comcast has supported the Open Internet rules since they were first proposed and is the only company that is currently required to abide by them

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