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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Comcast Wins (for now)

Comcast, the largest provider of broadband, won an important court case today against the FCC. At issue was Comcast's practice of limiting its users' access to file sharing sites like BitTorrent, in an effort to prevent broadband service slowdown for its other users when large amounts of data are downloaded from such sites. The ruling challenges the FCC's policy of net neutrality, preventing companies from limiting use of the Internet based on types of data downloaded (videos, pictures, et cetera). Proponents of net neutrality argue that allowing content providers like Comcast discretion in limiting access to sites threatens innovation and customer choice on the Internet. Comcast and other opponents of net neutrality argue that the FCC policy prevents them from addressing service issues like network slowdown for their users, and unfairly restricts options for offering premium services for segments of its users with larger bandwidth requirements. (Not surprisingly, Web content providers like Google and Microsoft have been vocal in their support for net neutrality.)

The ruling is ostensibly a blow to net neutrality, but some feel that the Comcast ruling will ultimately hasten the establishment of net neutrality by the FCC, however. Comcast argued that the FCC does not have authority to impose policy-level decisions such as net neutrality on it as a broadband provider. Given that broadband is currently classified by the FCC as a "lightly regulated" information service, it does not have "common carrier" obligations as traditional telecommunications services do under law. Thus, the court found that the FCC could not simply impose its favored "policy" of net neutrality on Comcast and other lightly regulated information services. But a plausible outcome of the ruling, however, is that the FCC simply reclassifies broadband as "a more heavily regulated telecommunications service", according to Ben Scott, director of public interest group Free Press, one of the organizations that initially tipped off the FCC to Comcast's practice with regard to BitTorrent. In this case, Comcast would presumably fall under the purview of common carrier obligations, and the policy of net neutrality would become law. Nice going, Comcast. To paraphrase the inimitable Johnny Cougar, you "fight authority, authority always wins."

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