ISPs Assailed at FCC Hearing

 
 
By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-04-18
 
 
 

STANFORD, Calif.-Several large Internet service providers-namely Comcast Communications, AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon-were verbally battered April 17 by private citizens, free-Internet access advocates and representatives of radio stations and small ISPs (Internet service providers) at a special public hearing before the Federal Communications Commission.

The five-member FCC, in a session hosted by the Stanford Law School and held at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on campus, focused its fact-finding and comment-gathering session on broadband network management practices.

Comcast, the nation's second-largest ISP, has been accused of interfering-and even shutting off access-to users who send large personal files through the Internet, particularly digital video and audio music using BitTorrent peer-to-peer filesharing software.

This practice brought together a number of disparate interest groups-and dozens of speakers-in a unified chorus condemning the huge ISP for infringing upon the "neutrality of the Internet."

A member of the Christian Coalition was upset because Comcast has allegedly curtailed uploads of the King James Bible; a colorful group of elderly women called the Raging Grannies passed out handouts condemning the ISPs to "keep their hands off the Internet" and telling them to simply provide access without interference.  Others described the Internet as a backbone of democracy and the last truly free and open method of communication.

Comcast has claimed that sending large audio and video files absorbs bandwidth unfairly for a few users, to the detriment of many users who send only email and other lightweight data forms. The company also has claimed that this is helping put a stop to illegal pirating of movies and music.

Speaker after speaker harangued Comcast for allegedly cracking down on frequent users of BitTorrent, using a technique called "deep packet inspection technology," or TCP (transmission control protocol) RST (reset) packets that cause these inbound connections to computers to die in midstream.

Formal complaints have been filed with the FCC against Comcast and the others by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Media Access Project  and other public-access advocates for alleged misuse of public airwaves.

Comcast operates both cable television and Internet networks in many regions of the United States, and many consumers know them as a duopoly or monopoly provider of residential broadband Internet access.

Around May 2007, Comcast installed new software or equipment on its networks that began selectively interfering with some of its customers' TCP/IP connections. The most widely discussed interference was with certain BitTorrent peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing communications, but other protocols have also been affected.

The EFF published a white paper last November in order to inform the public of the current state of knowledge about Comcast's "interference" activities.

Neither Comcast or a representative of any other major ISP was in evidence at the Stanford hearing, which drew a large audience of several thousand students, business people and private citizens who came in and out of the auditorium during the eight-hour FCC session.

Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and a cable research company, CableLabs, were all invited to participate at Stanford, but all of them declined, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin told the audience.

Commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate asked their fellow commissioners-Michael Copps, Jonathan Adelstein and Martin-to be cautious in handling Internet regulation.

"Organic market forces, not governmental regulation, has caused the Internet's growth," Tate said.

Copps said he favors "an enforceable principle of non-discriminatory behavior to our Internet policy statement. This won't be easy, but that's exactly why we need a for-sure enforcement process ... to sift through the complaints...and over time establish a precedent."

"No one should be messing [with] the openness of the Internet," Copps said. "It's going to be a major fight with powerful forces on the other side."

Adelstein said that "it's time for the commission to strengthen and enhance [the commission's four-point Internet policy statement of 2005 (PDF)] and add a fifth principle to address an incentive for anti-competitive" behavior. "We desperately need more competition in the broadband marketplace," he said.

America's Internet economy is the strongest in the world, and it got that way not by government ruling, but by parties working together for a common goal, McDowell said. "For those who argue for more government control, I say be careful what you wish for," he said.

After hearing more than 150 speakers during the lengthy session, FCC Chairman Martin dodged a question from eWEEK about whether large ISPs were being vilified unfairly.

"I think what the commission is focused on is 'What are the appropriate policies from a consumer perspective, making sure that consumers continue to have access to all the information that's available over the Internet.' And I think that we'll continue to end up focusing on that underlying principal, which harkens back to the networking principles we adopted back in 2005," Martin told eWEEK.

"I just want to make sure that we did try to make this as open and transparent as possible," he said.

There is no timetable for FCC action at this time. The commission will remain in fact-finding mode for at least several months, an FCC spokesperson told eWEEK.

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