Blown To Bits

Net Neutrality Showdown

Monday, August 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

More than a year ago, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop using its tactics for slowing peer-to-peer movie downloads. Customers hogging bandwidth by using BitTorrent, for example, would suddenly find their bit delivery slowed to a standstill. Comcast was inserting forged packets in the communication between the customer and the download site–packets essentially saying “something’s wrong, please start over.” Customers had no way of knowing what the problem was, but naturally assumed that it was either with them or with the site at the other edge of the network, not with the ISP they had hired to deliver bit packets to them.

The FCC ordered Comcast to cut it out, noting the anti-competitive implications of Comcast’s techniques–customers unable to get their movies from where they were trying to get them might buy them from Comcast instead. The problem to which the FCC responded is exactly the same as the 19th century problem of telegraphy, when Western Union cut an exclusive deal with one of the “wire services” so that the information carrier would restrict the content delivered to the customer.

Comcast complied with the FCC order, but expressed skepticism that the FCC really had the authority it claimed. The other shoe has finally dropped: Comcast is taking the FCC to court for exceeding its regulatory authority. Arstechnica has a good write-up: FCC enforcing imaginary laws in P2P ruling, says Comcast.

However the court finds (and it will probably take some time finding anything), Congress should act. There seems a reasonable likelihood that FCC authority, vested in it long before the Internet was invented, can’t be stretched to give it veto power over deep packet inspection. Obama ran on a platform favoring Net Neutrality; time for him to get Congress to work.

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