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Comcast/BitTorrent Truce Raises Questions

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Thursday's announcement that Comcast and BitTorrent will work together to solve network management problems won praise from some quarters, including members of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, but some net neutrality advocates said the deal doesn't diminish the need for new government rules.

Comcast, the largest cable provider in the U.S., announced it would work with peer-to-peer vendor BitTorrent on ways to better manage network traffic as many users trade high-bandwidth files. Comcast has come under fire for slowing some BitTorrent traffic; some consumer and digital rights groups have said Comcast's behavior, revealed in an Associated Press investigation last October, shows the need for Congress or the FCC to approve net neutrality rules.

The two companies said they will work together, and engage the broader Internet community, on new ways to manage network traffic during peak times. Comcast also said it will migrate to a network management technique that is protocol-agnostic by the end of the year.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he was pleased that Comcast has "reversed course and agreed that it is not a reasonable network management practice to arbitrarily block certain applications on its network."

Martin also praised Comcast for working with BitTorrent. But he expressed some reservations.

"I am concerned, though, that Comcast has not made clear when they will stop this discriminatory practice," he said in a statement. "It appears this practice will continue throughout the country until the end of the year and in some markets, even longer. While it may take time to implement its preferred new traffic management technique, it is not at all obvious why Comcast couldn't stop its current practice of arbitrarily blocking its broadband customers from using certain applications."

Martin called on Comcast to provide its broadband customers and the FCC with a date when it plans to stop slowing BitTorrent traffic.

FCC member Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, praised the agreement but said the FCC will need to see more details of the deal. He also urged the "broader Internet community" to engage in similar dialogue.

FCC member Robert McDowell, like Martin a Republican, was more forthcoming with his praise. "Consumers will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this agreement," he said in a statement. "As I have said for a long time, it is precisely this kind of private sector solution that has been the bedrock of Internet governance since its inception. Today's announcement obviates the need for any further government intrusion into this matter."

Several consumer and digital rights groups disagreed with McDowell.

Comcast's agreement with BitTorrent has no bearing on net neutrality complaints now before the FCC, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, one of the groups calling for the FCC to pass net neutrality rules. Sohn called Comcast's agreement "irrelevant" to the complaints before the commission.

"The FCC has the responsibility to protect the rights of consumers against discriminatory network management practices," Sohn said in an e-mail. "Any future agreements in the private sector do not change that reality, particularly if the companies involved reach agreements that work specifically with some technologies or network companies and not with others. Any arrangements made now would not cover any future developments in blocking, throttling or filtering that any other companies may use."

Internet users still need strong net neutrality protections, added Nicholas Reville, executive director of the Participatory Culture Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes the open-source BitTorrent application Miro.

"Comcast can see that public demands for net neutrality protections are growing -- this announcement is a transparent attempt to distract from that debate," Reville said in an e-mail. "The announcement from Comcast and BitTorrent Inc. has absolutely nothing to do with the need for net neutrality protections and BitTorrent Inc. certainly does not speak for other torrent technology companies."

But Bret Swanson, a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), called the agreement a "huge win for common sense and for a healthy, growing Internet."

"We at PFF have been arguing for years that the Internet is a fast-moving realm of changing technology and content," he wrote in a blog post. "We advised that Washington should not wade into this dynamic arena with static rules that are likely to be misguided, and sure to be outdated even before they go into effect."

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