February 22, 2008 12:00 PM PST
Comcast vs. BitTorrent to be focus of FCC hearing
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This brings us back to the question currently before the FCC--what is "reasonable" network management, anyway?
On Monday, the FCC commissioners may offer a clearer glimpse of where they stand. The commissioners will have the chance to question Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen, along with executives from Verizon Communications, BitTorrent, Sony, and online video-sharing site Vuze.
Each of the commissioners has already shown some indication of whether they're for or against Net neutrality-type regulations. Chairman Kevin Martin and fellow Republican commissioners Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell have tended to believe that regulations aren't needed and that the market can settle any concerns about unfair prioritization of Internet content, while Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have tended to favor stiffer rules against traffic discrimination. This is an echo of what happened in Congress, where votes took on a sharply partisan tone.
Martin has, however, indicated recently that a key part of "reasonable" network management practices is making them transparent to customers--something that critics say didn't happen in the Comcast episode.
The hearing is largely a response to public outcry over Comcast versus BitTorrent. Shortly after those reports emerged, a coalition of consumer advocacy groups that support Net neutrality regulations--including Free Press, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project, and Consumers Union--petitioned the FCC to proclaim that "degrading peer-to-peer traffic" violates federal broadband policy.
In a separate but similar petition, the video file-sharing application Vuze asked the FCC to "clarify" what it means by "reasonable network management"--and, more specifically, "to establish that such network management does not permit network operators to block, degrade or unreasonably discriminate against lawful Internet applications, content, or technologies."
The FCC is weighing whether to grant either of those requests.
Comcast, for its part, has already told the FCC in written comments that its actions are completely reasonable. The cable company said it slows down only file uploads that rise to the level of "excessive" and that could interfere with other users' experience during periods of peak network congestion.
But BitTorrent firms have countered that the behavior is "anticompetitive" because it stymies the flow of legal video content that competes with TV programming offered by the cable operator.
Verizon has said it sees no need to interfere with file-sharing traffic at this point, citing fewer bandwidth constraints than Comcast encounters, but it respects the need to do so.
"While Verizon is not in a position to address the particular facts, circumstances, or reasonableness of Comcast's network management practices, the petitioners' sweeping arguments ignore the real-world need for broadband providers to manage their networks in a wide range of contexts and using a variety of methods in order to deliver high-quality and safe broadband services to their consumers," Verizon wrote in comments filed with the FCC.
Sony said in its written comments to the FCC that as a major provider of video content, it supports Vuze's call for clarity on the "reasonable" network management definition. Without FCC scrutiny--or perhaps even regulation--there may be no way of ensuring that "facially legitimate network management tools" don't limit competition in the market for Internet video content, wrote Jim Morgan, the company's government affairs director.
Also scheduled to speak (PDF) at the hearing Monday are Massachusetts legislator Daniel Bosley, a Democrat who leads a technology committee; University of Pennsylvania law professor Christopher Yoo, who has argued against Net neutrality regulations; and three Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors who specialize in network management issues. And, of course, Rep. Markey is scheduled to appear.
The action isn't expected to stop beyond the hearing-room walls. The SavetheInternet.com coalition, whose members include scores of nonprofit groups, small businesses, and bloggers, said it plans to record testimony outside the hearing from members of the public who wish to speak their minds.
Vuze is also inviting Internet users to submit "video testimony" about broadband network management issues to the "FCC Channel" at its Web site. FCC Commissioners are planning to respond to some of the videos during the hearing, and they'll also be made part of the formal public record, Vuze said.
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