The U.S. Federal Communications Commission apparently plans to open an investigation into complaints cable giant Comcast is interfering with peer-to-peer file sharing traffic on its network. In comments to the Associated Press made at this week’s CES show in Las Vegas, FCC chair Kevin Martin said "We’re going to investigate and make sure that no consumer is going to be blocked."
The issue emerged late last year when the Electronic Frontier Foundation and an Associated Press reporter found that attempts upload content via the peer-to-peer file-sharing service BitTorrent were sometimes being blocked by an intervening system on the Comcast network by sending a "reset" packet that effectively shut down the upload. Comcast says it doesn’t block peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic and only engages in "reasonable network management" in order to assure the smooth operation of its services for all customers. Nonetheless, Comcast was sued last November over the issue, and a class action lawsuit is currently being prepared.
"The question is going to arise: Are they reasonable network practices?" said Chairman Martin. "When they have reasonable network practices, they should disclose those and make those public."
Several advocacy groups have filed complaints with the FCC over the alleged blocking, and even Comcast’s competitors have called for an FCC investigation.
The outcome of the investigation—and any action taken by the FCC—may shape the "network neutrality" debate for years to come. If Comcast is found to be manipulating Internet traffic and is forced to transparently inform consumers how its network operates, it would be a victory for those who argue current regulatory authorities are sufficient for managing the Internet’s free exchange of information. On the other hand, if Comcast manages to skate through the investigation and can still be demonstrated to be interfering with customers’ use of its network, then it may be open season for broadband providers to ride roughshod over customer activity, arbitrarily deciding what services may be used on their network, at what time, and for what fee.