Consumers Disappointed In Comcast Settlement

by , Dec 23, 2009, 4:30 PM
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Private class-action lawsuits can go a long way towards compensating people who've been injured by faulty products and questionable business practices. But as a vehicle for crafting net neutrality regulations, such lawsuits leave a lot to be desired.

Consider, Comcast has just agreed to pay up to $16 million to settle litigation over throttling peer-to-peer traffic, over the objections of several unhappy subscribers who brought suit.

The resolution would resolve seven potential class-action lawsuits filed against the company, which were filed throughout the country and then consolidated in the eastern district of Pennsylvania.

But some of the consumers who brought the cases have argued in court papers that $16 million total -- which would amount to no more than $16 per affected consumer -- isn't enough compensation. They also say that a settlement should include an injunction against Comcast, banning it from engaging in particular traffic management techniques in the future.

One of the disgruntled plaintiffs, software researcher Rob Topolski, was among the first people to report that Comcast was blocking peer-to-peer traffic. His report was later confirmed by The Associated Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spurring Free Press, Public Knowledge and others to complain about Comcast to the Federal Communications Commission. Last year, the FCC ruled that Comcast's traffic-shaping techniques violated neutrality principles stating that consumers were entitled to access all lawful content and applications of their choice.

Comcast has since changed its traffic management techniques, but the consumers who object to the settlement say that a court order is nonetheless necessary.

The judge presiding over the case, Legrome Davis, rejected that claim and granted the deal preliminary approval, stating that Comcast had already stopped singling out peer-to-peer traffic. Davis also said that consumers can bring suit in the future if Comcast again engages in questionable traffic management techniques.

Of course, the last thing most litigants want is to be told to bring another lawsuit -- especially where, as here, they have proof to back up their original claim.

Yet, given that the FCC is considering enacting net neutrality regulations and Congress is mulling legislation, it's not surprising that the trial judge doesn't see the need for an injunction. At this point, it looks like Internet traffic rules will be hammered out in Washington, which doesn't leave much room for private litigants to craft their own neutrality policies.

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