FCC considers regulating limits on Web use

Officials of the FCC said last week they are considering rules and enforcement actions that would force cable and telephone companies from delaying the up and downloads of Internet users.

The policies, outlined at a hearing at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, would force Internet service providers to more clearly display their policies against users who they claim are clogging their system.

Comcast, one of the nation’s largest cable companies, has been the subject of a complaint after it acknowledged that it slowed down some Internet traffic of BitTorrent, a file-sharing service, because of heavy use of video-sharing applications.

Consumer groups have said that such discrimination against some content providers has been aimed at Comcast’s rivals and is both unnecessary and threatens to undermine the freewheeling nature of the Internet.

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin said operator tactics must be open and transparent, and they cannot “arbitrarily block access to certain services,” he said.

While questioning a senior executive from Comcast, Martin indicated that the commission was considering whether to levy a fine or issue an order that would limit the company’s ability to slow down broadband traffic to consumers using file-sharing programs.

Michael J. Copps, a Democrat commissioner, expressed concern that cable companies might be degrading or slowing network traffic. “The time has come for a specific enforceable principle of nondiscrimination,” he said. “Our job is to figure out where you draw the line between unreasonable discrimination and reasonable network management.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, head of a House telecommunications subcommittee, recently introduced legislation intended to prevent cable and telephone companies from discriminating in the way they control broadband traffic. Markey expressed concerns about Comcast’s practice, warning of “the transformation of BitTorrent into bit trickle.”

The New York attorney general’s office has subpoenaed information from Comcast on the company’s handling of Internet traffic.

In a sideline to the hearing, Comcast admitted hiring people to fill up the limited number of seats at the FCC hearing. More than 100 people were turned away when the event reached capacity.