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WASHINGTON -- For all the uncertainties about what the combined company would look like if Comcast and NBC Universal are permitted to join forces, one thing is clear: Comcast will be a much more active participant in the debate over how to deal with pirated content on the Internet.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts this morning hinted that the nation's leading cable ISP could take a more active role in fighting against illegal content passing over peer-to-peer networks.
"The whole question of piracy, we are now going to be on both sides of that issue," Roberts said in an on-stage interview here at the State of the Net conference, an annual tech policy event hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus.
With the deal in the midst of an antitrust review at the Justice Department, Roberts was guarded in his remarks concerning his plans for revamping NBC once the transaction wins the blessing of the government.
Asked about using filtering technology to block or slow content on Comcast's network, Roberts was quick to distinguish between legal and illegal content. Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), of course, landed in hot water with the Federal Communications Commission in 2008 for slowing transmissions of lawful peer-to-peer BitTorrent traffic.
"We slowed down. We did not block," Roberts said. "We realized that that was not the right solution."
Comcast has since modified its network-management policy to avoid being castigated for singling out a specific type of traffic to slow. But that dust-up was a bandwidth issue, not a copyright matter.
With the company poised to team with NBC Universal, whose premium television content and movies are ripe targets for piracy, Comcast will take on an enormous incentive to get tough on the matter. Comcast has its own television properties, such as the Golf Channel and E, but Roberts this morning said that the cable business still accounts for 95 percent of the company's revenue.
The relationship between content companies and ISPs have drawn close scrutiny from digital-rights groups and open Internet advocates, who warn of organizations like the movie and music industry lobbies pressuring network providers to screen for pirated content.
Those concerns became all the more urgent when the Recording Industry Association of America announced in December 2007 that it was abandoning its policy of suing infringers in favor or partnering with ISPs to monitor for pirated content passing over their networks and send warning letters to consumers. Major ISPs have denied cooperating with the RIAA in its "graduated response" program, which would threaten to cut off repeat infringers' Internet service.
Groups such as Public Knowledge have warned against false positives, arguing that even the best filtering technologies could mistakenly label legal traffic as pirated content, and block the transmission or worse. That would cast ISPs in the role of copyright cops, and set in motion a wholesale system of filtering that is anathema to both
The Comcast-NBC Universal merger has already drawn heated opposition from consumer-advocacy groupswho worry about other ramifications of the alignment of major content and distribution players, including the impact on nascent Web video plays such as Hulu, of which NBC owns a roughly 30 percent stake.
Roberts this morning said he did not see an immediate need for changes at Hulu, declining to comment on the rumors that the site could introduce a pay wall. Asked if Hulu's model of free content supported by mid-roll ads made sense, Roberts demurred.
"Honest answer is I don't know," he said. "We don't anticipate saying we have to change ... what they're now doing."
But he added that most of Hulu's television programming is network content that airs for free. Premium content is s different story. Comcast has been aggressively signing up partners for Fancast, its online streaming program through which cable subscribers can watch premium content from partners such as HBO over the Internet.
Some of the opposition groups have raised concerns that Comcast could use its distribution muscle to disadvantage the content of NBC's competitors, either over its Internet service or through the licensing agreements struck with the cable television arm.
Roberts assured the audience today that Comcast has no intention of adopting any such discriminatory practices. He'll have a chance to reprise his performance next week, when he's slated to testify at one of four congressional hearings that have been scheduled to probe the merger.