Comcast: We Need to Play Internet Traffic Cop

By Brad Stone
China's Internet Police

Comcast, the second largest Internet service provider in the country, is making the controversial and aggressive case that Internet service providers should be allowed to serve as traffic cops on the Internet.

In an 80-page filing with the Federal Communications Commission yesterday, the company says it has a right to clamp down on the use of peer-to-peer file sharing programs on its network to preserve the smooth flow of bits to and from all its customers. The filing was in response to an F.C.C. complaint from network neutrality groups in November after the Associated Press revealed that Comcast was stopping some customers from using BitTorrent, a file sharing program often used to swap copyrighted copies of songs and movies over the Internet.

The F.C.C., in its 2005 Internet Policy Statement, said that consumers are entitled to run the applications and online services of their choice. But in the last footnote on the last page of that important document, the F.C.C. allowed for some blocking based on “reasonable network management.”

Comcast appears to be pinning its argument on that phrase.

“Network management is best left to the sound, good-faith judgment of the engineers and proprietors who run and own the networks and who are best able to remedy customer service issues promptly, rather than to regulation,” the Comcast filing states.

“If Comcast did not engage in such responsible and limited management in those limited geographic areas and at those limited times when it is required, the user experience for all customers, including the users of the managed protocols, would deteriorate to unacceptable levels.”

Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press, one of the organizations that asked the F.C.C. to clarify whether Comcast’s actions violated government policy, framed the filing as a serious attack on the principles of network neutrality - where all bits are treated equally.

“They are trying to read those three little words to gut the entire policy statement and all the F.C.C. language on Internet freedom and to overrule their own promises to the FCC saying they would never block Internet traffic.”

Mr. Ammori notes that Comcast is blocking a specific kind of online activity – peer to peer applications – which often competes with services that Comcast itself offers, such as its cable and online TV offerings and video on demand service.

“It’s as though Exxon owned the road and was only slowing down hybrid vehicles,” he said. “It’s a very specific kind of a discrimination.”

Executives for AT&T, the country’s largest Internet service provider, have openly discussed the idea of filtering the Internet to preserve network speeds. They also raised more explicitly the goal of using Internet filtering to stop rampant online piracy.

An executive for Verizon, another large ISP, recently told my colleague Saul Hansell that Verizon would not engage in such filtering.

So let’s reignite the debate here on Bits: does Comcast have a point? Where does reasonable network management collide with the principles of a fair and open Internet?