Comcast: What a Slate Piece Got Wrong About Our Partnership With Khan Academy

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Jan. 28 2014 10:23 AM

Don’t Be So Cynical

Comcast responds to a Slate piece that criticized its partnership with Khan Academy.

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Finally, the piece denigrates the program by speculating Comcast might “pick the winners and losers in the online educational market” by favoring Khan’s Internet traffic and degrading service to others. This is beyond what anyone could characterize as even reasonable speculation. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this outlandish assertion, and Comcast has made it crystal clear that it will not degrade or slow down Internet traffic for any of our customers or any website (Khan competitors included). And if that’s not good enough, the Comcast/NBCUniversal transaction order, to which we agreed, bars that kind of behavior.

And that points us to the biggest problem of all—the unrelenting, corrosive cynicism that runs throughout the entire piece. Fact-based criticism is one thing. But assuming the worst in all cases (“hypothetically,” of course) and writing off any possibility that others might have decent or honorable motives is another. As Stephen Colbert put it, “cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it’s the farthest thing from it.” And the consequences in this case are destructive and real: what do we say to children whose families chose not to sign up for affordable broadband because someone wrongly convinced them the whole thing was a scam?

Closing the digital divide means rolling up our sleeves and working together—all of us in the private sector, the nonprofit and public policy community, government, and as individuals. And Comcast stands ready to work with everyone who shares that goal.

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Danielle Kehl responds: 

The digital divide is an incredibly complex and important issue with far-reaching implications for our country’s future—on this point, Mr. Cohen and I are in complete agreement. Our perspectives diverge, however, when we drill down into the specifics of what a solution to this problem looks like and how we get there. The goal in taking a skeptical look at the recent announcement about the Comcast–Khan Academy partnership was neither to score cheap points against Comcast nor to discourage, as Mr. Cohen suggests that I am trying to do, families with school-age children from signing up for Internet Essentials because it is a “scam.” Rather, what my colleagues at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and I want to do, along with analysts at organizations like the Roosevelt Institute, is push the conversation much further. We need to start talking seriously about why the Internet is so expensive in the United States, what meaningful broadband adoption really looks like, and how to help the millions of low-income Americans who don’t have school-age children afford high-speed Internet connections. The nature and tone of Mr. Cohen’s response are defensive, but it fails to explore the ways in which Comcast might move beyond Internet Essentials to address the underlying, fundamental problems that exacerbate the digital divide in our country. After all, if we are serious about solving this problem in the United States, we need to be willing to admit when a solution looks good but isn’t really sustainable or when it doesn’t address the systemic problems that exist. And it’s true that Comcast proposed Internet Essentials as part of the NBC merger—but the response fails to mention that, according to the Washington Post, in 2009 the cable company delayed implementing a program aimed at low-income families so that it could be used as a bargaining chip in the upcoming merger negotiations. We would love for Comcast to prove us wrong and start offering truly high-speed, low-cost Internet service to Americans across the country. But in order to get there, we have to be willing to evaluate the current situation with a critical eye.

David L. Cohen replies: 

This productive exchange shows areas of agreement and disagreement. We have never argued that Internet Essentials alone will close the digital divide. But it is indisputable that IE is a major and successful effort—it’s been called the “largest experiment ever” in this space by an official of the NAACP. Focusing on the fact that more remains to be done doesn’t do justice to the good work that is underway. On the question of affordability, the ITU says the U.S. has the OECD’s most affordable entry-level fixed broadband pricing. In any event, I appreciate New America and Slate hosting this important dialogue—we should all be talking, and listening, to one another more on real ways of closing the digital divide.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

David L. Cohen is executive vice president and chief diversity officer at Comcast Corp.

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