FCC to look at complaints that Comcast interferes with Internet traffic

The FCC will investigate complaints that Comcast actively interferes with Internet traffic as its subscribers try to share files online, FCC chairman Kevin Martin said last week.

In an investigation last year, the Associated Press found that Comcast in some cases hindered file sharing by subscribers who used BitTorrent, a file-sharing program. The findings, first reported Oct. 19, confirmed claims by users who also noticed interference with other file-sharing applications.

A coalition of consumer groups and legal scholars asked the agency in November to stop Comcast from discriminating against certain types of data. Two groups also asked the FCC to fine Comcast $195,000 for every affected subscriber.

Comcast denied that it blocks file sharing, but acknowledged after the AP article that it was “delaying” some traffic between computers that share files. The company said the intervention was necessary to improve the surfing experience for the majority of its subscribers.

Peer-to-peer file sharing is a common way to exchange copyright files illegally, but companies are also using it for legal distribution of video and game content. If Internet providers hinder or control that traffic, it makes them gatekeepers of Internet content.

The FCC’s response will be an important test of its willingness to enforce “net neutrality,” the principle that Internet traffic be treated equally by carriers, the AP said. The agency has a broadly stated policy supporting the concept, but its position has not been tested in a real-world case.

The petition was filed by Free Press, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, Charles Nesson of Harvard Law School and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Barbara van Schewick of Stanford Law School and the Stanford Center for Internet & Society.

“Nobody gave Comcast the right to be an Internet gatekeeper,” said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press and co-author of the complaint. “And there is nothing reasonable about telling users which Internet services they can and can’t use.”