Comcast To Stop Slowing Peer-to-Peer Traffic
The company said it will work with BitTorrent to develop and implement a new "protocol agnostic" system for handling Web traffic by the end of the year. "We will have to rapidly reconfigure our network management systems, but the outcome will be a traffic management technique that is more appropriate for today's emerging Internet trends," said Tony Werner, Comcast Cable's chief technology officer, in a statement.
Comcast has been on the defensive about its network management practices since at least last October, when an investigation by The Associated Press revealed that the company was slowing traffic to peer-to-peer sites.
Online video company Vuze, as well as a coalition of net neutrality advocates, filed complaints against the company with the FCC. They argued that Comcast was violating the FCC's 2005 net neutrality principles, which say Internet access companies shouldn't discriminate against specific publishers or lawful applications, but can take reasonable steps to manage traffic.
After initially denying it blocked traffic, Comcast last November admitted that it sometimes slowed visits to peer-to-peer sites, but said it only did so to cope with network congestion.
The FCC, which recently held a hearing at Harvard Law School about net neutrality, appears to have been leaning towards ruling against Comcast. The two Democratic Commissioners are on record as supporting net neutrality, and Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, has criticized Comcast's actions.
Martin issued on Thursday what was perhaps his strongest condemnation of Comcast to date, stating that blocking certain applications was discriminatory and not a reasonable network management practice.
"I am pleased that Comcast has reversed course and agreed that it is not a reasonable network management practice to arbitrarily block certain applications on its network," he stated. "I am concerned, though, that Comcast has not made clear when they will stop this discriminatory practice," he said, adding that Comcast should give the FCC a specific date by which it will end the practice.
Comcast said it has never permanently blocked users from reaching particular sites.
The two other Republican commissioners issued statements reiterating their support for private solutions rather than regulation in this area.
Advocates who had complained about Comcast say they still hope the FCC takes some action against the company, such as imposing a fine or issuing an injunction banning it from discriminating against particular applications in the future.
"They still committed a violation and lied about it," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "To say we should stop all of this inquiry, and we shouldn't regulate because of this announcement, is bad policy making."
In addition to the FCC complaint against Comcast, Public Knowledge and other advocates also filed a petition asking the agency to declare that Internet service providers can't intentionally degrade any applications.
Sohn said the FCC should still act on that petition because the agreement between Comcast and BitTorrent isn't binding on other Internet service providers.
"The petition asks for a ruling of general applicability to all broadband providers, that throttling a particular IP protocol is not reasonable network management," Sohn said.
Advocacy group Free Press, which joined in the complaint and petition, added that it too doesn't believe Comcast's agreement with BitTorrent settles the issue. "I'm hopeful that the FCC is going to take a line in the sand here, and take decisive action against Comcast," said communications director Craig Aaron.
Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said the agreement between Comcast and BitTorrent doesn't change the need for legislation he recently proposed enshrining net neutrality.
"Even if today's announced discussions prove successful, they may ultimately involve only the policies of one broadband provider with respect to Internet traffic over its network," he said in a statement. "As a result, I believe this episode underscores the continuing need for overarching legislation so that all broadband providers and affected providers of content, applications, and services are covered."
Some entertainment industry executives earlier this year weighed in against net neutrality, arguing that anti-discrimination laws could hamper efforts to fight online piracy.
The FCC is still scheduled to hold another hearing April 17 at Stanford about network management. Martins in his statement Thursday said that hearing "offers us the opportunity to explore more fully what constitutes reasonable network management practices, including ... the important ability for network managers to block the distribution of illegal content, including pirated movies and music and child pornography."