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FCC Rules Comcast Violated Internet Access Policy

BY Admin  August 1, 2008 at 2:05 PM EST

Comcast logo with cable; AP file photo

In a precedent-setting 3-2 vote, the FCC enforced a policy
that guarantees customers open access to the Internet.

The commission did not levy a fine, but ordered the company
to stop cutting off transfers of large data files among customers who use
certain file-sharing software.

Comcast said its practices are reasonable — that it has
delayed traffic, not blocked it — and that the FCC’s so-called
network-neutrality “principles” are part of a policy statement and
are not enforceable rules, the Associated Press reported.

The FCC action arose when bloggers reported that Comcast
customers using file-sharing software such as BitTorrent noticed their
transmissions aborted prematurely.

Josh Silver, executive director of the public interest group
Free Press, which was among the groups that filed complaints with the FCC
against Comcast, told the Online NewsHour that his group could not be more
pleased with the ruling.

“The FCC’s ruling today sends a clear message to
policymakers, the public and Wall Street that the FCC will not tolerate
companies blocking or slowing down Internet content,” he said, adding that
the ruling marks the first time the government has punished a company for
blocking or slowing down Internet traffic.

But National Cable & Telecommunications Association
President Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement that the decision is “proof
that engineering challenges on the Internet should be solved by engineers, not
government officials.”

“In second-guessing reasonable network management
techniques (with no notice or guidelines in place) that benefit the
overwhelming number of broadband subscribers in America, the FCC has
inexplicably elevated the interests of a few bandwidth hogs over everyone else,”
he said.

Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin proposed the
enforcement action and was joined by Democratic commissioners Jonathan
Adelstein and Michael Copps. He was opposed by members of his own party,
commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate, who both issued lengthy
dissents.

The commission’s authority to act stems from a policy
statement adopted in 2005 that outlines a set of principles meant to ensure
that broadband networks are “widely deployed, open, affordable and
accessible to all consumers.” The principles are “subject to
reasonable network management,” a concept the agency has not explicitly
defined.

The FCC action requires Comcast to stop its blocking
practice by the end of the year and provide details to the commission on the
management techniques it has used and let consumers know details of its future
plans.

Martin was particularly critical of the company’s failure to
disclose to customers exactly how it was managing its traffic, saying this
action “compounded the harm,” the AP reported

Martin said Comcast managers were not “simply managing
their network, they had arbitrarily picked an application and blocked their
subscribers’ access to it.”

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said in a prepared
statement that the company was “disappointed in the commission’s divided
conclusion because we believe that our network management choices were
reasonable….”

Comcast has said it delayed traffic among users of the
file-sharing, peer-to-peer programs that were responsible for taking up a
disproportionate share of bandwidth and endangering service for other
customers.

The company has pledged to stop using its network management
practice by the end of the year and switch to a “protocol agnostic”
technique that will not single out any particular type of user.

The action is the first test of the agency’s network
neutrality principles.

Members of Congress, including presumed Democratic
presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have pushed for network
neutrality legislation without success. Large Internet service providers have
fought such regulation, arguing that companies that spend billions on their
networks must be free to manage traffic.

Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and the U.S.
Telecom Association all released statements saying the FCC action proved there
was no need for federal network neutrality legislation.

But Free Press’ Silver contends that the ruling means that
“it is much more promising that tomorrow’s Internet will be free and open
and democratic without companies like Comcast controlling what they can see,
how fast it loads and what it costs.”