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.

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Martin later issued a statement clarifying what was going on. He said that he would not recommend a fine, but instead demand that Comcast stop limiting access to file-sharing applications used in a legitimate way. Martin thinks Comcast needs to change its network management policies and “fully disclose the limitations on the use of bandwidth for subscribers so they know exactly what they are paying for.”

One reason that Martin may have soft-pedaled his approach (allowing both sides to claim a victory, as one blog described it) is that Comcast has been working with companies such as BitTorrent to develop a system that slows down people who use too much bandwidth, not just people who use P2P software. It’s already experimenting with the idea in Florida and should expand the program by the end of the year.

So why is all of this important to us, the average Internet user? It’s good for us because Martin’s approach to this issues signals a desire by the FCC to support “Net neutrality” – the idea that every “one and zero” that zooms through the Internet should be treated the same by service providers, regardless of the who, what, when, where, and whys.

Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, it’s actually a hotly debated issue.

Those in favor argue that people have a right to do whatever they want on a broadband network and it’s illegal to restrict that usage. (The FCC decision in this case definitely leans toward this position.) There’s a fear that a non­neutral Internet will allow companies to set up a “tiered model,” where they can slow down or charge money for data that’s sent by their competitors. Vint Cerf, the co-inventor of the Internet, has said “The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services. A lightweight but enforceable neutrality rule is needed to ensure that the Internet continues to thrive.”

Those opposed argue that Net neutrality is a “solution in search of a problem.” Bandwidth providers need to be able to tailor their bandwidth usage to accommodate peak usage, or to “punish” (because that’s basically what it is) those who use too much bandwidth. They also argue that Net neutrality would serve as a disincentive for companies to upgrade their network and services.

The fight is far from over. Comcast and other service providers have argued that the FCC has given them little guidance on what it means by “reasonable” network management.

In the end, it’s probably going to take a law from Congress to clarify the issue, which probably means that nothing will happen until after the current election season is over. That’s just the way Congress seems to work.

Both sides have good arguments. But let’s hope a solution is found that doesn’t limit our access to the software and steers away from a tiered pricing model, which would create an Internet of haves and have-nots.

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