The FCC scolds Comcast, but there’s still a long Internet fight to come
Column: Recent decision by Chairman Kevin Martin leans toward Net neutrality.
The Internet is a pretty wide-open space. You can find almost anything you want on the Web, and most of the time you have no problem getting it.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet some recent advertised promises of high speeds and access to everything on the Web were not completely true. Several Internet service providers have been applying a technique called “throttling” in an attempt to limit some customers from using too much bandwidth.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Kevin Martin decided that maybe this bandwidth throttling had gone a little too far. And he focused his attention on one company that had been the subject of scrutiny for some time: Comcast.
The incident that kicked this off was Comcast’s decision to choke off the bandwidth of customers who used software called BitTorrent. It’s a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing method that allows its users to download files. The program is known best for pirating huge files like TV shows and music collections – but there are legal uses as well.
Comcast felt that all this downloading took up an inordinate share of bandwidth, so they turned down the hose for those customers – instead of the full flow of data, BitTorrent users only get a trickle.
Mr. Martin decided that “Comcast’s actions in this instance violated our principles.” In 2005, the FCC issued a list of four principles for bandwidth usage. Comcast continues to insist that the FCC may not have the authority to implement these “principles.” They include the idea that, to encourage more Americans to sign up for broadband service, it’s in everyone’s interest for service providers to allow users to go anywhere on the Internet and use any program they want (as long as it’s legal).
Martin had originally announced in January that the FCC would investigate Comcast after an Associated Press article alleged that Comcast was blocking some file-sharing applications (such as BitTorrent). The AP experiment was also duplicated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Comcast, for its part, accused AP and the EFF of using too narrow a scope in their investigations. It insisted that it was never “blocking” any program, just limiting some access.
But the FCC investigation proceeded anyway, and late last week, things looked bad for Comcast. A source within the FCC office told the media that the investigation had found that Comcast was “broadly and arbitrarily” blocking certain applications such as BitTorrent, which in turn, denies “subscriber access to the legal Internet content of their choice.” Thus Comcast’s actions broke one of the FCC principles.