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Today, at the opening session of the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees Winter Full Board Meeting, dozens of Penn students conducted a direct action aimed at David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of the Comcast Corporation, and Chairman of the Penn Board of Trustees.

Video courtesey of Jennifer Calloway.

Credit: Jennifer Calloway

The shouts of Penn students echoed when they interrupted Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting to confront the Board of Trustees Chairman and Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen. But the advocates showed up only to find that Cohen was not in attendance.

The more than a dozen Penn students who came to confront him continued anyway, demanding Comcast stop advocating and lobbying against Title II net neutrality, which would protect consumers from online discrimination by internet providers. Under net neutrality, Internet providers must act in the public interest, preventing large providers from creating faster connections with a fee, which could harm smaller start-up providers. 

Just hours after the protest, however, the Federal Communications Commission down in Washington, D.C. voted to approve net neutrality regulations that classify broadband as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act. This will prevent companies from being able to pay for faster access to new consumers. It is a win in the eyes of many American consumers, including the eyes of the Penn students raising their voices in the Thursday's trustees meeting.

But net neutrality wasn't the only issue protesters were fighting for. The students also included in their demands that Cohen publicly pledge to pressure both Comcast and Penn to help fund public education in Philadelphia. This echoed a steady demand from groups like the Student Labor Action Project, which asked Penn to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes during a die-in at Penn President Amy Gutmann's holiday party in December.

At Thursday's meeting, protesters once again threw administrators off their agenda. The students dropped a banner that read “#Don’tBlockMyNet” in front of the trustees in attendance.

“In my life, I know what it feels like to have dominant narratives that are more well-endowed than mine oppress my identity,” student organizer and College senior Levi Gikandi shouted. “The internet is a vital source of voice, identity and freedom. It cannot be another vehicle for discrimination by those in power."

Students also condemned Comcast’s push to merge with its biggest competitor, Time Warner Cable, and called for Comcast and Penn to pay their fair share in resources to Philadelphia.

“When public schools are under attack, what do we do?” Gikandi shouted. “Fight back!” a chorus of Penn students yelled in response.

Comcast's efforts to give back to the school system in Philadelphia have been called into question in the past. In the summer of 2011, Comcast launched a program called "Internet Essentials," which offered low cost computers and Internet access to low income homes and schools. The program offers eligible users Internet access for $9.95 per month, and used computers for $149.99, both before tax. However, a May 2014 article in The Washington Post put the program — specifically the one in Philadelphia — under speculation, claiming Comcast created the program in order to boost its image in the midst of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. 

The Post reported that most students from a local Philadelphia high school where Internet Essentials was implemented in 2012 could not remember it just two years later. Those who remembered the program recalled the slow Internet connection.

Gikandi said Cohen is responsible for the decline in money for education because of his support of former Republican Pa. Governor Tom Corbett, who cut public school funding. In preparation for the 2014 race, which Corbett lost to current Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, Cohen held a fundraiser for the former governor which won a net $200,000 in Jan. 2013.

Administrators were not pleased with the way in which protesters delivered their message.

The Board of Trustees was underway in its meeting on local, global and national engagement at the time. “It was very unfortunate,” Penn Director of Communications Steve MacCarthy said in a statement. “There are much more productive ways to make a point than to attempt to shout down a meeting.”

“I think his comment is unfortunate, and that’s not true,” Gikandi said in response to MacCarthy's comment. “David Cohen is a very hard person to pin down. This is a national issue that has been going on and has been loud. We felt there was no other way, no louder way, than to meet him in person."

Gikandi said the students' point was relevant given that inclusion and innovation, as well as local, global and national engagement, were on the agenda for the Board of Trustees. “They didn’t hear us out,” Gikandi added. “Our chant was not longer than five minutes.”

In Washington, however, the FCC says it has been listening to citizens' concerns. "We listened, and we learned," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”

According to Comcast's website, the company — headquartered in Philadelphia — supports net neutrality and is the only American company to be legally bound by the FCC's Open Internet rules from 2010. However, Cohen has been spoken out against aspects of net neutrality in the past. Late last year, he released a statement regarding Obama's proposed bill that said,“To attempt to impose a full-blown Title II regime now when the classification of cable broadband has always been as an information service, would reverse nearly a decade of precedent, including findings by the Supreme Court that this classification was proper.” Critics of the net neutrality bill say it still allows broadband providers that also produce content — like Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal — to prioritize their own content over competitors'.

Other large telecommunications companies similar to Comcast, like Verizon and AT&T, are expected to turn their attention to Congress to overturn the FCC’s ruling. 

"Over 5,000 Philadelphians, including these student leaders at Penn, have contacted us, asking how we can make sure Comcast is accountable to its home city and the entire country," said Bryan Mercer, co-executive director of Media Mobilizing Project and anchor member of Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), in a statement. "With these student leaders bringing #Don'tBlockMyInternet to Comcast's David Cohen, we hope he and his colleagues see that Title II net neutrality, no Comcast-Time Warner monopoly and Comcast accountability at home is the path they should take forward if they want to succeed for the next generation."

The action was part of a series of #Don’tBlockMyInternet events that happened across the country from the Bay Area and New York to Illinois and New Mexico.

“Penn's commitment to inclusion, innovation, local, global, national engagement is an illusion,” Gikandi said. “At the end of the day, I think [Cohen] has proved us right: He wasn’t even at the meeting.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Comcast opposes net neutrality and spent millions of dollars lobbying the FCC to block it. The article has been updated to reflect that this information is false and Comcast officially supports net neutrality. The article has also been updated to reflect that David Cohen is the Executive Vice President, not CEO, of Comcast. The DP regrets the error.

This article was last updated at 12:02 a.m. on 2/27/15. Check back for updates.

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