News

More Peer Review

4/18/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Trust, discrimination, competition and the Comcast way of managing traffic on its network all got a second round of examination by the Federal Communications Commission last Thursday, with at least one member of the agency asserting it was time to establish clear rules about carrying data over the Internet and end debate on the meaning of “network neutrality.”

The time has come for the FCC to propound “a clear, strong declaration that we will not tolerate unreasonable discrimination by network operators and that we have in place enforcement policies to make sure that anyone with other ideas isn’t going to get away with them,” said Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat.

Copps’s remarks came at a five-hour forum at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley. The area is home to Google and other large Internet companies with a big stake in the design of regulations aimed at cable and phone broadband access providers.

At the forum, FCC chairman Kevin Martin gave one of the Valley’s and the University’s most prominent thinkers about 30 minutes to weigh in on the way Comcast, the nation’s largest cable multiple-system operator, manages the Internet traffic it carries on its networks and the need for regulation.

“We still have not achieved a clear network-neutrality policy that is viewed as enforceable and meaningful from the FCC or Congress,” said Lawrence Lessig, a prominent professor of law at Stanford.

Comcast, which declined to attend this hearing, has been criticized for delaying the transfer of large video and other data files at peak traffic times by users of the BitTorrent application, which shares the processing power and bandwidth of participating computer users.

Comcast, Lessig insisted, provided “misrepresentations of what they had done” when asked about steps it had taken against BitTorrent users. “And that,” he added, “raised fundamental questions about trust.”

Comcast has argued that it delayed BitTorrent uploads because fat video files sent by a small percentage of users were clogging its network, degrading service for the vast majority of high-speed data customers at peak hours.

That action, since it involved video files, has been criticized as anti-competitive. Distribution of video files via the “peer-to-peer” file-sharing that BitTorrent fosters could pose a competitive threat not just to traditional cable TV programming, but also to such new products as high-definition channels and video-on-demand services, the theory goes.

FCC Republican Robert McDowell said that blocking only uploads was not proof of an anti-competitive motive. That would indicate that Comcast or another video provider was not trying to keep the computer user from acquiring video files — just from sharing them under certain circumstances

“If [Comcast’s] actions were intended to be anti-competitive, would Comcast not have been interfering with video downloads instead?” McDowell said.

Comcast has sent data messages known as reset packets to interrupt BitTorrent sessions.

Robb Topolski, a professional networking specialist credited with first uncovering Comcast’s practice, said the use of reset packets was the equivalent of “jamming authorized communications” and added, “It isn’t standard or authorized.”

The first forum on network-management practices was held in February at Harvard Law School; Comcast apparently felt its views were already expressed.