FCC blocks Comcast blocks

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In a precedent-setting decision, the FCC has ordered Comcast to stop restricting its broadband users from sharing movies, TV shows and music by way of Internet protocols like BitTorrent.

The FCC stopped short of fining Comcast, though it laid out a host of principles that Comcast and other ISPs should adhere to, including that they must disclose to customers the way in which they manage their networks.

"Bad actors will be punished," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said.

The issue was brought to the FCC's attention by consumer groups complaining that Comcast was blocking access to BitTorrent and other file-sharing services. Comcast countered that it simply was taking the most logical course of action to maintain the proper flow of Internet traffic, but the FCC found otherwise.

"It was unreasonable for Comcast to discriminate against particular Internet applications, including BitTorrent," Martin wrote. "They delayed and blocked customers using a disfavored application even when there was no network congestion."

In the FCC's 3-2 decision, Martin split ranks with his Republican colleagues and sided with the two Democrats.

In his dissenting statement, Republican commissioner Robert McDowell focused on Comcast's right to choose how it should best manage its own network. He also noted that Comcast made no attempt to quash its own competitors in the online video space but instead focused on trying to ensure the speedy delivery of Web pages.

"The record contains no evidence that Comcast is interfering with sites like YouTube which do not use pipe-clogging P2P software," McDowell wrote.

He also warned of unintended consequences to the FCC's decision.

"The practical effect of today's order requires all network operators — cable, telcos and wireless providers — to treat all Internet traffic equally," he said. "That sounds good if you say it fast, but the reality is that the Internet can function only if engineers are allowed to discriminate among different types of traffic."

Some analysts were echoing McDowell's concerns Friday. Craig Moffett of Bernstein Research, for example, warned that the FCC was nudging ISPs to adopt usage-based pricing rather than the prevailing model of paying one price for unlimited access to the Internet.

"If network operators can't manage traffic loads one way, they'll do it another," he said.

Martin, though, likened unfettered Internet access to old-fashioned snail mail by asking: "Would you be OK with the post office opening your mail, deciding they didn't want to bother delivering it and hiding that fact by sending it back to you stamped 'address unknown — return to sender'?" (partialdiff)
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