CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--At an unusual public hearing held away from Washington, D.C., federal regulators and a key Democratic congressman on Monday said they're investigating the Comcast vs. BitTorrent dispute and are ready to take action against network management practices that disrupt Internet users' experiences.
The remarks came at the start of a public hearing here, where the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to hear throughout the day from corporate, academic, and public-interest group representatives about what constitutes "reasonable" network management by Internet service providers.
That definition is important because it will help the FCC decide whether Comcast--or other Internet service providers, if necessary, in the future--deserves any sort of punishment for stalling uploads to BitTorrent protocol clients, a practice uncovered by Associated Press tests last fall.
"These are very significant issues, and we do not take these allegations lightly," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, referring to the Comcast issue, told a packed Harvard University Law School courtroom.
Comcast, for its part, maintains that its actions are completely reasonable, as they're designed to benefit the surfing experiences of all its customers.
In a speech to kick off the hearing, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of a U.S. House of Representatives Internet and telecommunications panel, called on the commissioners to be "wary" of believing "any carrier's contention of the need for a significant network management position" and of granting companies like AT&T and Comcast too much control over Internet traffic flows.
"Such intercession into a user's access to the Internet should not result in...the transformation of BitTorrent into BitTrickle," said Markey, drawing a smattering of applause from one corner of the high-ceiling auditorium. "That's a problematic result...whether it is purposeful or purely circumstantial."
Markey, a veteran congressman whose district begins one mile from the Harvard campus, is the sponsor of a new bill that would discourage, though not actually prohibit, Internet service providers from engaging in "unreasonable discriminatory favoritism" of content traveling through their pipes.
Each of the FCC commissioners present indicated that he wasn't passing judgment on the Comcast scenario yet, but would rather continue to gather facts with an open mind. Some, however, showed their leanings in their opening statements.
Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, called for the FCC, without delay, to establish a policy principle barring "discrimination" of Internet content, applications, or services. He admitted that enforcing such a principle would not be simple, but that the FCC would build up a body of cases that would help it to draw the line between reasonable network management and outright discrimination.
Jonathan Adelstein, another Democratic commissioner, called for an Internet user "bill of rights" that would include nondiscrimination guarantees.
Martin said reasonable network management "does not mean (Internet service providers) can arbitrarily block access to particular applications or services."
The Republican chairman also suggested, as he did a few weeks ago, that in order to be considered "reasonable," network management practices should be "conducted in an open and transparent way."
Martin and his fellow commissioners will have the chance to grill Comcast and BitTorrent executives, among others, as the hearing proceeds Monday afternoon.
FCC representatives have declined to explain why Harvard was selected as the hearing site, but a few more clues emerged Monday.
Markey said the hearing's date and location had been arranged to suit his schedule and also touted the role of local engineers in pioneering packet-switched networks. And Martin, for the record, holds a law degree from the Ivy League institution.