An imminent victory for Net Neutrality advocates

By Vindu Goel, New York Times

When Comcast admitted last fall that it was blocking — or slowing down, as the company preferred to call it — certain file transfers by customers, a lot of people complained that the company was unfairly discriminating against heavy Internet users.

Now it seems that the Federal Communications Commission is poised to agree.

The Associated Press reported late Thursday that the F.C.C.’s chairman, Kevin J. Martin, has concluded that Comcast improperly blocked some file transfers. Mr. Martin told the A.P. he would recommend that the commission punish Comcast, and order it to stop the blocking, tell the commission how and how often it blocked file transfers and disclose to consumers its future plans for managing its network.

Such an action would be the first time that regulators have slapped an Internet provider for violating F.C.C. open-access rules. Those rules are designed to prevent providers from favoring some services over others — for example, by accelerating the transfer of video from their own movie service or slowing down transfers from competitors.

That will surely please “net neutrality” advocates like Free Press, which brought the original complaint. The group issued a statement Thursday night saying: “The F.C.C. now appears ready to take action on behalf of consumers. This is an historic test for whether the law will protect the open Internet. If the commission decisively rules against Comcast, it will be a remarkable victory for organized people over organized money.”

Comcast’s blocking efforts ignited a wildfire of criticism last fall, after the A.P. tested Comcast’s network and reported that the cable company was manipulating Internet protocols to intermittently block file transfers made by customers using a popular program called BitTorrent.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, admitted that it was slowing down certain traffic but claimed it was legitimately managing its network so that a few bandwidth hogs didn’t bog things down for everyone else.

Still, in response to critics, the company decided to work with BitTorrent and experiment with other traffic-management techniques to handle the loads on its network.

The dirty little secret of the Internet industry is that all the providers use software tools to manage their network traffic. Comcast got caught and may have been more aggressive than some rivals, but it’s certainly not alone.

Mr. Martin’s proposed ruling in favor of openness could actually end up hurting Internet users if it accelerates the nascent moves by the industry to charge customers based on how much data they use instead of offering essentially unlimited data for a flat fee.

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