FCC chief backs Internet complaint against Comcast

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Federal Communications Commission said on Friday he will recommend that the agency sanction Comcast Corp for unreasonably restricting Internet users who share movies and other material.

In a victory for open-Internet advocates, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he will propose that the agency’s five commissioners vote to uphold a complaint alleging that Comcast violated the FCC’s open-Internet principles by improperly blocking peer-to-peer traffic on its network.

“I think it sets an important precedent for the commission,” Martin said at a press briefing.

Martin said his proposal would not include any fines against Comcast. But it would require the company to halt its current practice of hindering peer-to-peer applications, to disclose to the FCC how the practice has been used, and to notify customers about other network management practices it adopts in the future.

The commission will take up the issue at its next open meeting on August 1.

Comcast’s spokeswoman, Sena Fitzmaurice, issued a statement saying the company does not block any content or application on its network.

“The carefully limited measures that Comcast takes to manage traffic on its broadband network are a reasonable part of Comcast’s strategy to ensure a high-quality, reliable Internet experience for all Comcast High-Speed Internet customers and are used by many other ISPs around the world,” Fitzmaurice said.

Nevertheless, Martin said Comcast ran afoul of the FCC because the techniques it used to slow down peer-to-peer applications were “overly broad,” targeted only certain applications, and were not disclosed to its customers.

Martin said he stopped short of proposing a fine on Comcast because the FCC had never before given guidance to network operators on what constitutes “reasonable” management of their networks.

To be considered reasonable, Martin said, network management techniques must have a legitimate traffic-management goal, they must be “narrowly tailored,” and operators must fully disclose what they are doing to customers.

Martin’s proposal got a warm welcome from consumer groups who have complained about the way Comcast manages its network.

“Whether blocking traffic or collecting data without customers’ knowledge, ISPs must know that they cannot impose themselves between consumers and consumers’ online activities,” said Gigi Sohn, president of the non-profit group Public Knowledge.

Sohn said Congress should pass legislation to ban similar conduct by network operators “while preserving the rights of Internet users and companies that do business on the Internet.”

The Comcast case is at the center of a debate that pits open-Internet advocates who favor “network neutrality” against some Internet service providers (ISPs) who say they need to take reasonable steps to manage ever-growing traffic on their networks for the good of all users.

Consumer groups complained that Comcast violated those principles by unreasonably hindering some file-sharing services, such as BitTorrent, that distribute TV shows and movies.

Comcast has said its network management practices are reasonable choice and has argued that the FCC does not have the authority to enforce its open-Internet policy.

The company and other cable industry officials have argued that operators need to be allowed to manage their networks as they see fit to alleviate congestion and combat illegal file-sharing.