FCC will probe charges of Comcast customer discrimination

Charges that Comcast intentionally throttled the traffic of BitTorrent users for anti-competitive reasons, has apparently prompted the Commission to formally investigate the nation's largest CATV provider, its chairman said at CES yesterday.

Comcast logoThe US Federal Communications Commission acknowledged on Wednesday that it has agreed to requests from citizens' rights and consumers' groups to investigate whether Comcast may be interfering with the rights of its subscribers by throttling their transfer speeds when they're suspected of trading files.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin made the admission himself at CES yesterday. "Sure, we're going to investigate and make sure that no consumer is going to be blocked," the Associated Press quotes the chairman as saying.

The activist group Free Press last October accused Comcast of anti-competitive conduct when it was revealed it throttled the speeds of users running the BitTorrent P2P file-sharing system. In a statement at that time, its policy director Ben Scott argued that Comcast's motives were not so much to protect the rights of content owners but to stifle the growth of a potential competitor to its CATV service.

"The BitTorrent file-sharing model is on the cutting edge of innovation for online video distribution and the future of our media system," Scott wrote. "If you want content that isn't available on Comcast's cable system, the Internet is the place to go and this is the technology that is going to bring it to you. It's no surprise that Comcast, whose primary business is video, is working to smother a growing competitor."

In a press statement issued this morning, Comcast executive vice president David Cohen pledged his company's cooperation. Here is Cohen's statement in its entirety:

We look forward to responding to any FCC inquiries regarding our broadband network management. We believe our practices are in accordance with the FCC's policy statement on the Internet where the Commission clearly recognized that reasonable network management is necessary for the good of all customers. Comcast does not, has not, and will not block any websites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services.

Comcast plans to work with the Commission in its desire to bring more transparency for consumers regarding broadband network management. We do disclose in our terms of use our right to manage our network for the benefit of all customers and we have already posted Frequently Asked Questions on this topic on our Comcast.net to help consumers to understand how we manage the network in their best interests.

One of the entries in Comcast's FAQ offers this explanation to customers: "Since it is our responsibility to protect our customers' Internet experience, we use several network management technologies that, when necessary, enable us to delay P2P traffic during periods of heavy congestion on the Internet. This process may delay P2P packets from reaching their destination, but will not stop the traffic from eventually reaching its destination and at the same time allows us to deliver the best overall experience for all of our users."

But Free Press' Ben Scott didn't buy that argument.

"Comcast's deceptive tactics should cast serious doubt on their claims that blocking is the result of network capacity issues," wrote Scott last October. "Before reverting to these drastic and underhanded measures, the company should have taken the basic steps to inform their consumers about their bandwidth limitations."

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