FCC slaps Comcast's wrist over network neutrality; Sets precedent

FCC slaps Comcast's wrist over network neutrality; Sets precedent

Summary: The Federal Communications Commission on Friday ruled 3-2 that Comcast overstepped its network management authority by blocking BitTorrent peer to peer traffic, but stopped short of fining the cable company. The move clarifies the boundaries a bit for other carriers and sends the message that the FCC enforces network neutrality principles.

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The Federal Communications Commission on Friday ruled 3-2 that Comcast overstepped its network management authority by blocking BitTorrent peer to peer traffic, but stopped short of fining the cable company. The move clarifies the boundaries a bit for other carriers and sends the message that the FCC enforces network neutrality principles.

The order against Comcast is notable because it's the first official one making network throttling blocking officially illegal. The order, which was expected, also sets the template for future actions, which may turn up against other providers. In a nutshell, the FCC issued a cease and desist order to Comcast that forces the cable giant to disclose to customers how it manages its network. One thing is certain: This network neutrality issue will continue to reappear. Indeed the Electronic Frontier Foundation created a software tool to gauge your ISP's neutrality.

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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin likened Comcast's behavior--and the Net neutrality issue in general--to the post office. Would it be ok if the post office decided what parcel it moved faster? "Comcast was blocking downloads and doing it 24/7," said Martin. "Today the commission tells Comcast to stop and allow everyone to have unfettered access to the Internet."

The commission affirmed that it can and will enforce an open Internet and network neutrality principles. Martin said that Comcast wasn't merely managing its network. It was blocking specific applications without disclosing it. "Our action today is not about regulating the Internet. Network neutrality rules are unnecessary because the commission already has the tools to enforce (open standards)," said Martin.

Martin said if it didn't take action against Comcast it would set a bad precedent and tell other carriers that blocking is ok. His message: If the FCC didn't take action against Comcast it would indicate that network neutrality laws were needed.

The FCC didn't issue a fine, but Martin said the order is key to create a framework for future actions. "We need to protect consumer access," he said. Martin also said that Comcast's deal with BitTorrent doesn't solve consumer complaints. The only real consensus was that the net neutrality debate will continue.

Vuze, which filed the petition with the FCC along with formal complaints against Comcast, cheered the deal. Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa said in a statement:

Today’s FCC Order does two important things.  First, it makes clear that, while reasonable network management of Internet traffic is permissible, there is a line that cannot be crossed.  Comcast crossed that line, and has been sanctioned accordingly.  Secondly, the FCC endorsed the idea that the rule of law must be accompanied by transparency into what ISPs are actually doing to our Internet traffic.

FCC commissioners were split on what the meaning of the ruling was in the grand scheme of things and all complained that a ruling crafted in the wee hours of the night didn't provide enough time for analysis. And commissioners noted the order will go through editing. Until Martin's vote, commissioner vote for the Comcast order was split 2-2.

Commissioner Michael Copps hoped that the ruling would set up a fifth FCC principle declaring that all network traffic should be equal.  FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the order illustrates that the FCC can tackle net neutrality issues on a case by case basis without hampering innovation. Both favored an order against Comcast.

But Deborah Taylor Tate, another commissioner, said the Comcast ruling needs to be narrowly focused so that the FCC doesn't hamper innovation. Tate said that network providers are making strides on network neutrality without government interference. Tate's favored approach was to allow the private sector to sort out network neutrality. "My approach was that (Comcast issue) was a review of one complaint and not a monumental decision."

She noted that Comcast has partnered with BitTorrent as the FCC examined the issue. "This mediation is the best way to solve the problem," she said. Commissioner Robert McDowell agreed with Tate. McDowell said the network neutrality issue needs to avoid extremes on both sides.

"The FCC doesn't know what Comcast did or did not do," said McDowell noting that the evidence is conflicting on what Comcast did exactly to BitTorrent. "Not one of us has a networking degree." McDowell's take is that bureaucrats will hamper engineers to effectively manage traffic and potentially slow broadband speeds in the future.

Odds and ends:  Sometimes you just can't beat a TV. CSpan carried the FCC meeting live, which was clutch considering that the FCC's live stream croaked.

Topics: Government US, Government, Networking

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66 comments
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  • if comcast is truly guilty

    they should be fine and severely monitor and audit for a period of time . so they walk straight.

    FCC should make a example out of them so other should fear FCC for real
    Quebec-french
    • The problem is there was never really

      any precedent set before. How do you fairly punish someone for something no one ever said was wrong before?
      GuidingLight
      • The FCC referenced

        a supreme court ruling saying the FCC had authority to enforce neutrality principles. I'm not sure how much of a punishment this is really. Comcast largely anticipated the order and there's no fine. On the disclosure issue, shouldn't comcast reveal to customers what it does on the network side in the first place?
        Larry Dignan
        • Correct, but who

          has defined exactlly what those bounderies are?

          [i]a supreme court ruling saying the FCC had authority to enforce neutrality principles[/i]

          [i]Principles[/i]. Based on that word alone, what do your principles say about the scenerio where while paying 39.00 a month for Internet access, your usage is degraded because the neighbors on the next block up are all paying 39.00 a month each to run server farms from their homes?

          I can understand blocking Vonage in favor of their own VoIP, that is pretty much defined as not acceptable, but how far is a network allowed to go to maintain a consistent network for the majority of customers?
          GuidingLight
          • A little over stated.

            I see your point that some people could theoretically use up lots of capacity, to the detriment of others. But running a "server farm" or even one server violates the terms of service.
            cornpie
          • I know

            it was just a "point of reference" scenerio, overstated to make the point
            GuidingLight
          • The Crux as I see it

            I don't understand why everyone is piling on Comcast when their actions are in response to excessive use by BitTorrent users. Am I wrong, or aren't these people predominantly illegally downloading copyrighted materials (i.e., motion pictures, many of them not even released to DVD yet!)? How come the FCC is running interference for these scofflaws?
            psomerset9
          • You assume too much.

            I am a BitTorrent user who uses it for legal Linux Distro downloads. I am fed up with my BT running slower than FTP downloads and running slower than HTTP downloads.

            Comcast cannot assume that because illegal downloaders use BitTorrent that all BT users are participating in illegal activity.

            We might as well ban the use of Ford motor vehicles on the road because bank robbers use them to make getaways. Now don't say to me, "But they also use Mazdas." Illegal downloaders use FTP and HTTP also. To single out BT use as an illegal application is paramount to getting Fords off the roads so bank robbers do not use them.

            (Okay, maybe the analogy does not really hold up. Maybe more like banning sedans but allowing coupes, SUVs, minivans and motorcycles to remain. Nevertheless, still an unfair judgement.)
            Logics
          • Tiers

            Comcast (and other ISP's) offer a consumer and a business package. The terms of service vary, but your neighbor running a server farm would (probably - IANAL) violate the usage under a consumer account, requiring them to get a business account.
            jmorgus9
          • TRUE !!

            It DOES violate the little fine print...now Comcast may have gone about it the wrong way-but they have the right idea. Users who are signed up for a home/entertainment account should only have access to a certain amount of bandwidth. If it shows that there is very high traffic (up/downloading, large amounts of emails etc) coming from a particular user, then heck yeah..they should be required to pay for a higher tier so they are not slowing it down for the rest of us..
            GrooveyB
          • not fair

            You should be able to use what you paid for. If you pay for 4mbps access you should have your 4mbps to do w/e you wanted. Users shouldn't be throttled or blocked for using the data amount that THEY PAID FOR. I've seen this done on some big hosts too, where they promise 2 TB a month transfer and as soon as your site starts using its data it gets disabled for "excessive usage". I believe that if a company is going to advertise something they need to live up to it and stop overselling and hiding behind this "abuse" bs.
            Jimster480
          • The point is they weren't exceeding what they had paid for.

            The question is does the company have to provide full bandwidth twenty four seven or even at peak usage times?

            They were claiming they did but they lied. They were breaking downloads as well as throttling.

            They got slapped for breaking downloads and telling lies.

            This judgment didn't address throttling. I think we can expect that to continue.
            deowll
          • re: Correct, but who

            [i]what do your principles say about the scenerio where while paying 39.00 a month for Internet access, your usage is degraded because the neighbors on the next block up are all paying 39.00 a month each to run server farms from their homes?[/i]

            I think server farms is a bit of an exaggeration, but I see your point.

            However, Comcast had to resort to doing what it did because it's failed to keep its network up to date and it's oversold capacity. It's still using DOCSIS 1. The standard today is 3 and would afford much more capacity.






            :)
            none none
          • DOCSIS

            No, the current standard is 2.0. Version 3.0 is still under development.
            Rubix_z
      • Well that really simple

        Because you the choosing and legislative organization and you have the right and mandate to apply and impose legal setting and set-up over company that try to bend the right of user or trespass there contract or anything that you see fit as a legislative organization must be allow to .

        Since Company must be bent into shape so they follow proper ways ..... FCC should be allow too impose its will as it see fit
        Quebec-french
        • You miss the point

          how severe do you punish a child for writing on the wall if no one ever told the child he cannot write on walls?

          Has anyone told these ISP's exactlly what they can and can not do to maintain their netwoks?
          GuidingLight
          • It doesnt matter if you punish them...

            The children will still write on the walls
            afrey1
          • The children will still write on the walls

            My parents got me to stop doing that at a very early age if I ever did.

            Of course they used the same methods on me their parents had used on them. Those methods work.
            deowll
          • re: You miss the point

            [i]Has anyone told these ISP's exactlly what they can and can not do to maintain their netwoks?[/i]

            If Comcast had maintained its network in the first place it wouldn't have a capacity problem.

            But, no, no one is telloing them how to maintain their network. However they have for a few years been aware of the FCC's policy statement regarding open networks.

            It's not that they didn't know what they were doing was wrong - Comcast is not a child. It's that the policy statements had never been tested.





            :)
            none none
          • No True

            With the way torrents work, you could have a 10Gbps internet connection, and you could still saturate it. As torrents are not regulated by the speed of a single server that you are downloading from, but rather thousands of servers.
            Stuka