Round Two on Comcast, Net Neutrality & the FCC

As we talked about extensively on the radioshow, the FCC’s last attempt at holding a hearing on network management and ISPs was somewhat thwarted by Comcast hiring disinterested seat warmers to take up valuable space that otherwise would have gone to interested members of the public. So the Commission is taking another stab at holding an accessible hearing on the issue of how internet service providers manage their networks and how they block certain types of traffic–as Comcast does with BitTorrent–or preserve true free speech.

The April 17 hearing will be held in the heart of Silicon Valley at Stanford University. Free Press’ Tim Karr has written a preview of what to look for at this hearing.

Two weeks ago Comcast and BitTorrent announced that they were going to work together to ensure that BitTorrent traffic moves less impeded on Comcast’s network. This falls in line with what BitTorrent CTO Eric Klinker said at a press conference call in February, where he noted that his company would be working with ISPs on developing ways to manage traffic and bandwidth without completely blocking their protocol.

While freeing up BitTorrent on Comcast’s network is a good thing, I’m still concerned about how this sets a bad precedent that puts Comcast and other ISPs in a position to extort the developers of new internet technologies and protocols into hewing to their demands, lest they suffer blockage of traffic associated with their products. BitTorrent is now a big enough company to be able to meet Comcast at the table, but this would not necessarily have been true back in 2001 when the protocol was first unleashed on the ‘net.

Without strong, legally enforceable Network Neutrality we’re still all just dependent on the country’s largest ISPs to find it in their best interest not to block traffic or for the developers of innovative new technologies to get big enough and powerful enough to get the ISPs to negotiate.

Though I’m hesitant to give that much credit to Comcast, the cynical side of me can’t help but wonder if the hamfisted BitTorrent blocking scheme wasn’t a way to shock customers and regulators with an extreme approach to managing their networks so that some less hamfisted schemes wouldn’t seem so bad by comparison.

We may learn more about the FCC’s possible plan of attack at next week’s hearing [PDF]. In the meantime BitTorrent’s president is saying that despite doubts expressed by public interest groups he believes that Comcast will follow through on ending its blocking of BitTorrent packets. He also said that other ISPs are using blocking schemes similar to Comcast’s and that the FCC should look into those instances, too.




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