Groups Cheer Reports of FCC Acting Against Comcast

Consumer rights groups cheered reports saying the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is ready to take action against Comcast for the cable-based Internet provider's decision to slow some peer-to-peer traffic on its network.

News reports over the weekend said Democratic FCC members Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein will join Republican chairman Kevin Martin in voting to punish Comcast for slowing BitTorrent P-to-P traffic on its network at times. Martin, in a statement Saturday, confirmed that a majority of the five-member commission has agreed to take action against the cable provider.

Earlier this month, Martin announced he would press for sanctions against Comcast, and Copps and Adelstein have been vocal supporters of net neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowing Web content they don't like. The Associated Press, in late 2007, reported that Comcast was slowing BitTorrent and some other traffic without telling its customers.

In 2005, the FCC adopted Internet policy principles telling consumers they have the right to unfettered access to legal Web applications, devices and services of their choice.

Consumer rights groups Public Knowledge and Free Press, which filed a complaint about the traffic throttling, applauded the FCC for its decision. "This is good news for consumers and Internet users," said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president. "Comcast knowingly blocked lawful Internet use and denied it. The fact that the commission is willing to stand up ... for Internet users is a good sign that the concept of net neutrality is alive and well in Washington."

An official vote on sanctions against Comcast is scheduled for Friday at the FCC. If the FCC takes action against Comcast, it would "send a strong signal to the marketplace that arbitrarily interfering with users' online choices is not acceptable," Marvin Ammori, general counsel for Free Press, said in a statement.

Comcast has said the traffic throttling amounts to reasonable network management. The cable provider says it throttles the P-to-P traffic only during times of peak congestion, but Martin and a study from the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany have contended that Comcast slows BitTorrent traffic during off-peak hours as well.

Only 6 percent to 7 percent of Comcast subscribers use P-to-P services in a typical week, but one half to two-thirds of the upsteam traffic on its network comes from P-to-P, said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice. About 90 percent of P-to-P sessions on the Comcast network are unaffected by traffic management, she added.

"It is always hard to respond to rumors, however, we continue to assert that our network management practices were reasonable, wholly consistent with industry practices and that we did not block access to Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services," she said. "We do not believe the record supports any other conclusion."

Randolph May, president of conservative think tank The Free State Foundation, called the reports of the FCC's intentions "very disturbing." Comcast has begun working with the company called BitTorrent and other vendors of Web applications on new ways to manage network traffic, he noted.

"This would mean the agency is embarking on a course likely leading to more intrusive regulation of broadband Internet services," May said. "Collaborating with BitTorrent and many other industry players, Comcast is moving towards a protocol-agnostic network management regime by the end of this year. So, this is not a good case for the FCC to go out on a limb and test its legal authority to regulate the Internet."

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