FCC Earns Kudos for Net Neutrality Inquiry

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Two public-interest groups praised the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for opening three inquiries into network traffic management practices by broadband providers and mobile phone carriers.

The FCC announced Monday it would launch inquires into the blocking of some text messages on mobile phone networks, into the slowing of P-to-P (peer-to-peer) traffic and into what constitutes reasonable broadband traffic management. The three inquires were based on complaints by public interest groups such as Public Knowledge and Free Press and by Vuze, a company that uses the BitTorrent P-to-P protocol to distribute Web-based video.

Public Knowledge, Free Press, Vuze and other organizations filed complaints with the FCC after press reports last year that broadband provider Comcast slowed BitTorrent traffic. Several public-interest groups also filed a complaint after Verizon Wireless denied Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, access when the group asked to the carrier to allow Verizon customers to sign up for text-messaging alerts. Verizon reversed the decision a day later.

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice confirmed Tuesday that Comcast has received a letter from the FCC asking the broadband provider to describe its traffic management practices. The FCC inquiry more broadly targets broadband traffic management by all broadband providers.

Similarly, the text-messaging inquiry is looking at whether any mobile phone operators should be able to block text messages. And the traffic-management inquiry focuses on what are acceptable traffic management practices industrywide, not just at Comcast.

Comcast repeated a statement it released last week, when FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he planned to look into the complaints. Comcast believes its actions constitute "reasonable network management" and are "necessary for the good of all customers," the statement said. Comcast does not halt access to any Web site or services, including P-to-P services, the statement said.

Public Knowledge, Free Press and other groups have pushed the FCC and the U.S. Congress to adopt so-called net neutrality rules, which would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing Web content from competitors. Comcast and other providers have argued that some network management is needed to protect customers against bandwidth hogs.

Public Knowledge praised the FCC for its three new inquires, saying the investigations will help define consumer rights online. "These inquiries will go a long way to setting out a road map for determining who will control the Internet, and whether texting will be seen in the same light as wireless voice services," Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said by e-mail. "We anticipate that at the end of the day, consumers will have more control over their Internet and wireless experiences than they do now."

Free Press also praised the FCC action. "Free speech should be protected everywhere -- whether it's text messages, phone calls, e-mails or the Internet," Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, said in a statement. "The FCC has started to respond to a growing public outcry, but they shouldn't drag their feet. Companies like Comcast and Verizon have showed repeatedly that they can't be trusted. Without quick and decisive action, they'll keep blocking, manipulating and interfering."

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