FCC Action Against Comcast Meets Mixed Reactions

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's decision Friday to prohibit Comcast from slowing peer-to-peer traffic was met with a wide range of reactions, with some groups calling the vote a huge victory for broadband subscribers and others saying it opens up the Internet to meddlesome new regulation.

The FCC's decision was a "landmark" victory for supporters of an open Internet and net neutrality, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. The digital rights group was among those that filed complaints against Comcast after press reports in late 2007 revealed that the nation's largest cable broadband provider was throttling BitTorrent and some other Web traffic.

The FCC voted 3-2 on Friday to order Comcast to stop interfering with peer-to-peer traffic by the end of the year and to submit a new network management plan to the agency. Comcast, one of the two largest broadband providers in the U.S., hinted that it may try to block the FCC's order in court.

While net neutrality advocates will celebrate the FCC's decision Friday, they will keep pushing for the FCC or the U.S. Congress to create definitive rules prohibiting broadband providers from arbitrarily blocking or slowing some Web content, instead of acting on a case-by-case basis, Sohn said. "This is huge, it's a giant step, but it's not enough to ensure that Internet users are protected," she said.

Some opponents of the ruling also suggested the decision will create uncertainty for broadband providers looking to manage traffic congestion on their networks, said FCC member Robert McDowell. "Is the next step for the FCC to mandate that network owners must ask the government for permission before serving their customers by managing surges of information flow?" he said. "As a result of today's actions, Internet lawyers around the country are likely advising their clients to do just that."

The FCC decision leaves small broadband providers wondering what kind of network management is allowed, said Brett Glass, operator of the Lariat.net wireless broadband provider in Laramie, Wyoming. The ruling -- which Glass called "arbitrary and capricious" -- could scare investors away as well, he said.

"We're kind of in the dark here," Glass said. "We don't know if this is going to be crippling or really damaging."

Comcast said Friday it is looking at all its legal options. The broadband provider has questioned the FCC's authority to regulate how it manages its network, and McDowell echoed that position during Friday's FCC meeting. The FCC in 2005 adopted Internet policy principles telling consumers they have a right to unfettered access to legal Web applications, devices and services of their choice, but those principles were not set up as enforceable rules, McDowell and other critics said.

The FCC is "making a big, potentially far-reaching mistake," said Bret Swanson, a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF). The FCC ruling will hinder broadband providers' ability to manage huge increases in traffic in the coming years, he said.

Swanson's colleague at PFF, Adam Thierer, called the FCC's action a "foot in the door for big government to regulate the Internet."

"Now that they have that foot in the door, I fully expect that it will be exploited for everything it's worth to grow the scope of the FCC's coercive bureaucratic authority over all things digital," Thierer said in a blog post earlier this week, after press reports saying the FCC was about to act against Comcast.

Congress, however, has tried to regulate the Internet for years, particularly online adult-oriented material. Earlier this month, a U.S. appeals court struck down for a second time the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998, which required that all Web sites containing "material harmful to minors" restrict access based on age.

In the Comcast case, an Associated Press investigation in late 2007 found that it was slowing P-to-P traffic for many users. Comcast first denied the reports, then said it was slowing P-to-P traffic only during times of peak network congestion.

But other studies concluded that Comcast was interfering with P-to-P traffic around the clock.

The FCC's action protects consumers, Web sites and providers of Web applications, said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a tech trade group.

CCIA thanked commissioners "for their superior understanding of the need to check monopoly and duopoly ISPs who attempt to act as online gatekeepers and for their historic and courageous action today," Black said. "Stopping discriminatory network management practices is important to the flow of information in our democracy and to the economic growth that is made possible by an open Internet."

The FCC investigation into Comcast's network management practices generated thousands of comments from Internet users, most of them calling for the FCC to stop Comcast's traffic throttling.

AT&T and Verizon, two other large broadband providers, said the FCC's actions show there's no need for further rules or legislation to enforce net neutrality.

"Regardless of how one views the merits of the complaint against Comcast, the FCC today has shown that its national Internet policies work, and that they are more than sufficient for handling any net neutrality concerns that may arise," Jim Cicconi, AT&T senior executive for external and legislative affairs, said in a statement.

Self-governance and some government oversight is appropriate to police individual broadband providers, added Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications. In addition, the case shows that broadband providers must inform customers of their network management practices, he added.

"The entire industry should redouble its efforts to set standards for transparency and ensure that consumers know what they are getting when purchasing access or using applications," Tauke said in a statement. "And we should get ahead of the curve in developing and adopting sound network-management practices as new services emerge."

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