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FCC slams Comcast for blocking Internet traffic, vows to police ISPs

August 1, 2008 | 12:18 pm
Kevinmartin3

A sharply divided Federal Communications Commission this morning slammed Comcast for blocking Internet access to some customers. It accused the cable company of failing to tell its subscribers about the practice, lying when confronted by regulators and trying to cripple online video sites that compete with its on-demand service.

Despite the allegations, the FCC decided not to fine Comcast. But the 3-2 FCC vote sets a new precedent in the volatile battle over Internet traffic flow, known as net neutrality.

In concluding that Comcast violated principles that the FCC put in place three years ago to guarantee access to any lawful online applications, the commission fired a warning shot to all Internet service providers that it would not tolerate discriminatory behavior. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin (pictured at right above), a Republican, sided with the two Democratic commissioners in rebuking Comcast, which argued it was using "reasonable network management" to try to prevent congestion caused by peer-to-peer users sharing large video files.

Martin said the FCC vote would "send a message to the industry that bad actors will end up being punished." He said:   

By applying the framework that we are adopting today, the commission will remain vigilant in protecting consumers' access to content on the Internet. Subscribers should be able to go where they want, when they want, and generally use the Internet in any legal means. When providers engage in practices truly designed to manage congestion, not cripple a potential competitive threat, they should not be afraid to disclose their practices to consumers.

The FCC gave Comcast 30 days to ...

... disclose details of its network management practices, describe how it plans to comply with a promise made in March to stop the blocking by the end of the year and tell its customers what the new practices will be.

Public interest groups and some online video sites complained to the FCC last year that Comcast was blocking BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing technology. The FCC launched a lengthy investigation that included two public hearings and generated 34,000 pages of records.

Comcast denied any wrongdoing and said it was considering challenging today's decision in court. In a written statement, Sena Fitzmaurice, the company's senior director of corporate communications and government affairs, said: 

We are gratified that the commission did not find any conduct by Comcast that justified a fine and that the deadline established in the order is the same self-imposed deadline that we announced four months ago. On the other hand, we are disappointed in the commission’s divided conclusion because we believe that our network management choices were reasonable, wholly consistent with industry practices and that we did not block access to websites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services.

Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, who joined with fellow Republican Deborah Taylor Tate in opposing the decision, laid out how Comcast might file a legal challenge. He said the FCC overstepped its legal authority and warned that it was launching a new era of government regulation of the Internet that could result in more online congestion. He said:

The majority has thrust politicians and bureaucrats into engineering decisions. It will be interesting to see how the FCC will handle its newly created power because, as an institution, we are incapable of deciding any issue in the nanoseconds of Internet time.

But Martin, along with Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, said today's action was a measured response to the Comcast case. Copps and Adelstein said they still would like the FCC to adopt a specific net neutrality rule barring any discrimination of Internet traffic so it would be clear that any such practice wouldn't be allowed. Copps said:

A clearly-stated commitment of non-discrimination would make clear that the commission is not having a one-night stand with net neutrality, but an affair of the heart and a commitment for life. That’s what something so precious as this technology deserves.

Here's editorial writer Jon Healey's take on the FCC's Comcast ruling, from his Bit Player blog.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington, D.C.

Photo: FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, right, and Commissioner Michael J. Copps at today's meeting. Credit: Joshua Roberts / Bloomberg News

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