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Man sues Comcast over BitTorrent flap; Net neutrality to the front burner?

The Comcast BitTorrent flap just won't go away. A California man is suing Comcast in a California state court because the cable giant secretly limited peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent.

The Comcast BitTorrent flap just won't go away. A California man is suing Comcast in a California state court because the cable giant secretly limited peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent.

The suit, reported by Ryan Singel on Wired's Threat Level blog, alleges that Comcast has violated computer fraud laws, user contracts and anti-fraud ad statutes.

Jon Hart, represented by the Lexington Law Group, a San Francisco law firm, alleges that Comcast markets its broadband access with claims of "lightning fast" and "mindblowing speeds" and promises "unfettered access to all the Internet has to offer." According to Hart, the reality is that Comcast impedes the use of peer to peer services. Comcast has been mushy on the specifics of how it manages its network, but the Associated Press has determined that traffic impediments abound. Hart is seeking class action status and the lawsuit could revive the Net neutrality debate.

Comcast disputes blocking anything. The last time this BitTorrent controversy flared up a Comcast spokeswoman said that that cable giant manages its network, but doesn't block anything. Comcast's FAQ says the same thing. From the FAQ:

We do not block access to any Web site or applications, including BitTorrent.  Our customers use the Internet for downloading and uploading files, watching movies and videos, streaming music, sharing digital photos, accessing numerous peer-to-peer sites, VOIP applications like Vonage, and thousands of other applications online.

And.

Our customers enjoy unfettered access to all the content, services, and applications that the Internet has to offer.  We respect our customers' privacy and we don't monitor specific customer activities on the Internet or track individual online behavior such as which Web sites they visit.  Therefore, we do not know whether any individual user is visiting BitTorrent or any other site.

A few observations:

  • The odds are that this lawsuit won't get too far. I'm no lawyer, but the complaint doesn't outline a lot of specifics. If Comcast is denying what Hart is alleging it's a he said, she said situation. And is it really fraudulent advertising? Comcast's service is still fast. As for unfettered access that could be debatable but the courts would have to define it. The claims would be much clearer if Comcast were blocking Google and Yahoo and not traffic shaping on its network. However, the technical details in any discovery process will be very interesting.
  • The lawsuit is still important though. Why? The publicity is likely to get the Federal Communications Commission or even the Federal Trade Commission interested. If Comcast truly did something wrong, these parties will be the ones to hand out the punishment.
  • Net neutrality as an issue is likely to heat up again. With Barack Obama stumping for Net neutrality and items like this appearing the issue may become front burner again.
  • Comcast has a major PR issue on its hands. When these lawsuits are filed the first day coverage always gets the most attention. If nothing else, Hart's suit has hurt the perception of Comcast. It may not matter what the facts are, Comcast will have an uphill battle on the perception front.