Groups Press FCC on Comcast, Net Neutrality

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007

Several consumer groups are challenging federal regulators to stop Comcast from interfering with Internet traffic on its network.

The groups, including Free Press, Public Knowledge and Media Access Project, filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to take action against the cable giant. Comcast has been criticized for interrupting Internet access to subscribers who are using popular programs like BitTorrent to download and exchange songs, movies and software programs.

The petition, filed Thursday, will serve as the first test of the FCC's position on the issue of net neutrality, which has become a hot-button topic among technologists and policymakers in Washington. Net neutrality refers to measures that would bar Internet providers like Comcast and phone companies from giving preferential treatment to content on their networks.

The five-member FCC has said it supports the concept, but has not been pressed to enforce it. The agency has also said Internet providers have the right to manage their networks.

Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein have said the FCC needs to take bolder steps to ensure the openness of the Internet.

"Now we come to the acid test," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Media Access Project. "Will the FCC, which vowed to protect our freedom to run the applications of our choice, stand up for citizens in the face of Comcast?"

Comcast says it does not block traffic between file-sharing sites like BitTorrent or Gnutella, but said it does delay such traffic when the network gets overloaded to prevent it from getting bogged down for other subscribers.

"We engage in reasonable network management to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience, and we do so consistently with FCC policy," David L. Cohen, Comcast executive vice president, said in a statement.

Consumer advocates have long argued that legislation is necessary to force network operators to ensure open access to the Internet. They have criticized the FCC for not enforcing its principals when problems arise. AT&T and Verizon Wireless, for example, have come under fire this year for blocking content. Both companies corrected the problem following public criticism.

Large phone and cable companies, which operate a large number of these networks, say they need flexibility to manage their networks to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

The FCC is not required to act on the petition, but the agency's response could affect the ongoing legislative debate over net neutrality.

If it chooses not to enforce its principals, "it will signal to Congress that action is needed," said Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company