Comcast Kumbaya

Comcast wants you to trust them -- to really, really trust them.

That's why the company's top lobbyist, David Cohen, convened what could best be described as a Kumbaya sing-along in Washington on Monday, to declare Net Neutrality an issue over which Washington needn't concern itself any longer.

"It's time to put this [Net Neutrality] debate behind us," he told an audience of D.C. insiders at the Brookings Institution. "Check the box and move on."

Now, don't think this means Comcast has changed its tune on the importance of the open Internet. It's still trying to kill Net Neutrality. It's just making a softer sell to convince Washington to forget about protecting the rights of Internet users.

"The courts, the FCC, and the Congress -- all valuable institutions filled with capable, conscientious people ... but few of them with the background to work out consensus on what are essentially complicated technical issues," Cohen said.

To whom, then, should we turn to look out for the public interest? Why, the industry itself. According to Cohen, "real self-regulation" with the assistance of an industry-formed advisory group is the answer.

Minding the Hen House

The advisory group Cohen has in mind, known as BITAG, was quickly cobbled together by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Microsoft, Intel and other major industry players in June 2010 -- just as the Federal Communications Commission was starting to craft rules to safeguard Internet users from an industry push to exert more control over Web content and applications.

Never mind that BITAG's list of charter members includes the biggest violators of Net Neutrality -- not least of all, Comcast.

To that end, Cohen skimmed over Comcast's covert campaign to block peer-to-peer users on its network -- for which it was sanctioned by the FCC.

Cohen would like us to forget that it was Comcast that was caught red-handed blocking lawful Internet traffic in 2007, and that then lied about what it was doing. It was Comcast that tried to evade scrutiny by obstructing public participation in an FCC hearing investigating its Internet blocking. And when the FCC forced the company to stop discriminating against its customers, without even levying a fine, it was Comcast that sued on a technicality to avoid any accountability.

But in an effort to whitewash its record of underhanded activity, Cohen claimed that the public reaction to this debacle taught the company a lesson about being better self-regulators.

"In retrospect," he said, "we made the wrong decision for the right reasons." Though those who were blocked from sharing barbershop quartet music and the King James Bible might remember things differently.

Bygones, said Cohen, who now claims Comcast was vindicated and can be trusted with the fate of your Internet -- and of NBC Universal, which it hopes to acquire.

Fear and Self-Loathing in Washington

"Unfortunately, the national debate around Net Neutrality and an 'open Internet' has been almost exclusively driven by lawyers," declared Cohen (who is a lawyer). In fact, Comcast hates lawyers so much that the company employs at least 100 of them from 30 different D.C. firms to lobby Washington to get its way.

All of Cohen's lip service about consensus would be more palatable if his company hadn't poured so much money into astroturf front groups and lobbyists determined to undermine all efforts to encourage fair competition and a level playing field online.

The only thing you can trust about Comcast is that it seeks to boost its bottom line and serve shareholders by any means possible. That's the nature of corporations. And naturally, the public shouldn't expect corporations like Comcast to look out for its best interests.

Public policy is designed for that role -- to make it profitable for corporations to behave in ways that don't harm the rest of us. The only thing that will keep Comcast honest is clear rules of the road and a real watchdog such as the FCC to enforce them.