FCC Rules Against Comcast

The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that Comcast Corp. violated federal policy when it blocked Internet traffic for some subscribers. The ruling ordered Comcast to stop cutting off transfers of files among customers who use a type of file-sharing software.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. Today, the country's largest cable company and its second largest Internet service provider got a scolding. The Federal Communications Commission voted to reprimand Comcast for secretly interfering with some Internet traffic. And with that vote, the federal government was stating its support for net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE: To explain what Comcast did wrong on the Internet, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin turned to another company that's equally renowned for its customer service: the U.S. Postal Service.

Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): Would anyone here actually be okay if the Post Office was opening your mail and deciding that they didn't want to bother delivering it, and hiding that fact by sending back to you stamped address unknown, return to sender? Unfortunately, this is exactly the practice that Comcast was engaging in.

ROSE: Last year, Comcast was caught interfering with the traffic of customers using peer-to-peer file sharing programs such as BitTorrent, a popular way of exchanging large files like movies. Comcast is also in the business of distributing movies, and critics charged it was thwarting competition. At first, Comcast denied the charges until independent tests proved it was impeding certain applications. The company then claimed it was engaged in, quote, "reasonable network management."

Mr. MARVIN AMMORI (General Counsel, Free Press): Blocking competitors is not reasonable network management.

ROSE: Marvin Ammori is a lawyer for Free Press, the nonprofit group that filed a formal complaint with the FCC in November.

Mr. AMMORI: And while there might be gray areas of what's reasonable, what isn't, this is not a gray area. This is clearly unreasonable.

ROSE: Today, a divided FCC agreed. The commissioners voted to reprimand Comcast for violating Internet principles the commission adopted in 2005 and then lying about it. At the meeting, Commissioner Michael Copps argued that the FCC should adopt an additional principle, one guaranteeing network neutrality, the idea that all data should be delivered at the same speed regardless of what it is or who it's from.

Mr. MICHAEL COPPS (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): A clearly stated commitment of nondiscrimination would make clear that the commission is not having a one-night stand with net neutrality, (unintelligible) an affair of the heart and a commitment for life.

ROSE: That's exactly what Adam Thierer is afraid of. He's a fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington.

Mr. ADAM THIERER (Senior Fellow, Progress and Freedom Foundation): It's the beginning of a serious regulatory regime for the Internet. It's the foot in the door for some in government to try to regulate various types of Internet activities.

ROSE: Including content. Thierer would rather see the market-pushing companies like Comcast to behave themselves, something he says is already happening. After an avalanche of bad press, Comcast announced it would voluntarily change its network management practices. And the company made peace with BitTorrent Incorporated, so Comcast Vice President Joe Waz says there is no remaining reason for the FCC to get involved.

Mr. JOE WAZ (Vice President, Comcast): Has the marketplace responded? Has Comcast responded in ways that are positive for the consumer? The answer is yes. And the agency, in my view, could say mission accomplished, let's move on.

ROSE: Comcast has not said if it will appeal today's FCC order. But the company's lawyers are already asking whether the commission has the legal authority to enforce its Internet principles. Commissioner Robert McDowell, who voted against the order, says the agency should've crafted formal rules instead of reacting to a single complaint.

Mr. ROBERT MCDOWELL (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): This matter would've had a better chance of appeal if we had put the horse before the cart and conducted rulemaking, issued rules, and then enforced them.

ROSE: But FCC Chairman Kevin Martin insists the commission is on solid legal ground, and he says Comcast's bad behavior left the FCC no choice but to act.

Mr. MARTIN: If we aren't going to stop a company that is looking inside its subscribers' communications, blocking the communication when it uses a particular application, hiding what it's doing by making its consumers think that the problem is their own, and lying about it to the public, what would we stop?

ROSE: The FCC did not impose a fine on Comcast, but it did order the company to report back on how it's changing its network management policy. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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