FCC Has To Put Up or Shut Up On Net Neutrality

Now we’ll see how serious the Federal Communications Commission is about its “policy principles” on Net Neutrality.

The FCC decided two years ago that high-speed Internet communications wasn’t of sufficient importance that the provisions in the Communications Act banning discrimination should be applied to it. Instead, they adopted some policy principles to guide industry behavior and said that if any problems occurred, they would be dealt with under whatever residual authority the FCC could muster.

Clearly, they haven’t done it of their own volition, so now Public Knowledge and Free Press have filed a complaint with the Commission over Comcast’s use of spoofing technology to throttle peer-to-peer applications. Obviously, principles are only principles. Given that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has said on any number of occasions that problems will be dealt with, we hope he will be as good as his word.

You can read the complaint here

Comcast’s response that the FCC principles allow for “network management” dodges the issue. If faking data and deceiving users is accepted as a legitimate way to manage networks, then the door is open to any kind of manipulation. There are lots of legitimate ways to manage a network other than to discriminate against one or two applications, like BitTorrent, and then not to tell users what’s going on. If Comcast (and other providers) are serious about running P2P applications, there are other ways to control what goes on. They could provide more bandwidth and offer higher upload speeds, as Verizon has started to on FIOS.

The second document we filed today was a Petition for Declaratory Ruling. Read it here

While the complaint is targeted specifically to Comcast’s action, the petition asks the FCC to rule that it’s a violation of their policy statement when a service provider intentionally degrades a targeted application. We also ask them to rule that intentionally degrading service without telling Internet users is a deceptive practice.

The complaint proceeding is relatively simple. At some point, the Commission asks the party being complained about to reply. The Commission staff and FCC make a ruling. The petition has a longer road. If the FCC puts it out for public comment, and that’s not a certainty, then there are comments, reply comments, eventually a ruling, possibly followed by court challenges, etc.

Either way, the bottom line is this: The FCC has to demonstrate through action, or through inaction, how it views the rights of Internet users. If the answer isn’t satisfactory, then Congress will have a much clearer view of the landscape than they do now.

While waiting for the FCC to rule, Congress has an obligation to figure out for itself what the companies who would control the Internet are doing. The House Telecom Subcommittee has held an impressive series of hearings already this year to examine how the Internet works, starting with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the developer of the World Wide Web, and continuing through a variety of topics including the U.S. standing in the world.

A good place to start would be for some hearings featuring Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. Last year, a group of brave Senate Democrats on the Commerce Committee stood up to the telephone and cable interests and cast their votes for Internet Freedom during the epic markup of the telecom legislation. One of their number, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), along with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), recently called for hearings. The rest of the panel Democrats, and whatever motivated Republicans there might be, should add their voices to those two, and get the Senate into the act.

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