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Feds to probe Comcast's BitTorrent busting

What is "reasonable network management"?

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At long last, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will investigate claims that Comcast has put a choke hold on P2P file-sharing traffic.

Speaking yesterday at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), FCC chairman Kevin Martin finally acknowledged four-month-old press reports questioning the American ISP's commitment to net neutrality.

"Sure, we're going to investigate and make sure that no consumer is going to be blocked," he told VIPs at CES.

Of course, "blocked" is a loaded word in this case.

Comcast's efforts to throttle P2P traffic were first uncovered in May, when an independent network researcher named Robb Topolski posted the results of several tests to DSLReports.com. But this news didn't reach the web at large until Topolski's tests were spied by the P2P-happy blog TorrentFreak.

In essence, Topolski had shown that Comcast was preventing P2P users from "seeding" files. When one machine attempts to trade a file with another, Topolski's tests proved, the ISP was sending a duped "reset flag" to break this peer-to-peer connection. Two months later, The Associated Press published its own tests showing this was indeed the case.

In response, Comcast insisted it was not "blocking" P2P traffic. "Comcast does not block access to any Websites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services like BitTorrent," read the company's statement.

But no one was accusing the ISP of blocking traffic. At issue was whether Comcast was throttling traffic. Later in its statement, the ISP copped to such behavior - though it used the word "managing" rather than "throttling".

"Our customers use the Internet for downloading and uploading files, watching movies and videos, streaming music, sharing digital photos, accessing numerous peer-to-peer sites and thousands of applications online," the company said. "We have a responsibility to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience and we use the latest technologies to manage our network so that they can continue to enjoy these applications."

Is this acceptable behavior? The SaveTheInternet.com Coalition thinks not. In early November, members formally asked the FCC to give Comcast a look-see.

"In 2005, when the FCC adopted an order reclassifying wireline broadband as an information service, it sought to ensure that network providers of Internet service, like phone and cable companies, would not violate network neutrality," SaveTheInterneters said. "Consumers are entitled to access all applications, services, and content of the consumer’s choice, and entitled to competition among providers of networks, applications, services, and content."

Meanwhile, Comcast argues that this FCC policy statement gives ISPs free rein to practice "reasonable network management." "We engage in reasonable network management to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience, and we do so consistently with FCC policy," Comcast has said. "As the FCC noted in its policy statement in 2005, all of the principles to encourage broadband deployment and preserve the nature of the Internet are 'subject to reasonable network management.' The Commission clearly recognized that network management is necessary by ISPs for the good of all customers."

With his appearance at CES, Kevin Martin has now said that the commission will investigate if Comcast's practices fall within its rules. "The question is going to arise: Are they reasonable network practices?" Martin said. But even if Comcast's practices are reasonable, he added, the ISP should lay all its cards on the table. "When they have reasonable network practices, they should disclose those and make those public."

You think the FCC should take Comcast to task? Richard Bennett - the man who wrote the first standard for Ethernet over twisted-pair wiring - thinks you're wrong. ®

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