Comcast's Network Practices Need Scrutiny, FCC Chief Says

FCC chief Kevin Martin said it appeared Comcast singled out Web content for delay.
FCC chief Kevin Martin said it appeared Comcast singled out Web content for delay. (Isaac Brekken - AP)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin yesterday challenged several of Comcast's claims about how it operates its Internet network, taking his strongest stance yet against the cable operator.

Martin's comments came during a hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee on the future of the Internet. Comcast is under investigation for allegedly delaying some Web traffic over its network.

Specifically, Martin said in his testimony that it appeared Comcast had singled out content for delay over its network, even when the network may not have been congested with overuse. He also said he doubted the company's statements that it would stop some of its practices by the end of the year.

"I believe that we should evaluate the practices with heightened scrutiny," Martin told lawmakers.

The FCC chairman, however, stopped short of asking Congress to act, arguing against passing new laws to enforce openness on the Web, a concept known as net neutrality. He said that the FCC had sufficient authority to enforce its four broad principles on broadband Internet management and that the agency should evaluate complaints on a case-by-case basis.

"I have consistently stated that the four principles are enforceable through the complaint process and adjudications," Martin said in a statement after the hearing. Martin has argued against a bill introduced by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) to enforce open-network rules. At the same time, he has not objected to clarifications that would enable the FCC to enforce its existing guidelines.

The FCC chairman's comment about Comcast indicated that the agency was moving toward taking action against the cable operator, said Roger Entner, a senior vice president at IAG Research.

Comcast was thrust into the debate over net neutrality after the public-interest group Free Press and a company called Vuze filed complaints that the cable company slowed the transfer of video and other Internet content by users of the file-sharing application BitTorrent.

"Right now, the agency's principles give the FCC a lot of leeway, which is what they want," Entner said.

But the agency's authority to enforce those principles is being debated.

Cable operators have said that the FCC doesn't have the power to enforce principles that broadly require unfettered Internet access for consumers. They said that their network management practices are reasonable and that the industry can police itself.

"None of the evidence suggests that any network provider manages their network for anti-competitive reasons. Rather, all of the evidence suggests that they do so to ensure all of their customers have the best possible Internet experience," said Kyle McSlarrow, head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

Some committee members said industry-backed solutions might not go far enough. Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said yesterday that rulemaking would help codify the agency's power to enforce its policies.

Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, agreed that rules clarifying the FCC's role would be an important step. "That would give Kevin Martin an ironclad way to protect consumers and their right to the content of their choice," he said.

The entertainment industry, meanwhile, is divided on net neutrality. Yesterday's panel included Hollywood writers and actors who testified in favor of regulations that would prevent media companies and cable and telecommunications carriers from controlling content over the Internet networks.

"The Internet holds incredible potential to resurrect a vibrant industry of independent creators with free access to, and distribution of . . . content," Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, said in his testimony yesterday.

But groups such as the Songwriters Guild of America have argued against net neutrality, saying a network without controls would effectively enable rampant piracy and copyright infringement.

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