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FCC censures Comcast for doing its job

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In a landmark decision, the FCC is set to censure Comcast for engaging in traffic management, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. While largely symbolic - Comcast will not be fined, the Journal reports - it marks an important victory for campaigners seeking greater regulation of the internet. The case was brought by P2P video network Vuze and activist group Free Press.

The ruling faces an immediate challenge, since the FCC's decision retrospectively turns a "non-binding" aspiration into a rule. A 2005 policy statement, passed under the previous FCC chairman, made broad aspirational statements about what the net should look like. These were so vague however, that Powell's successor Kevin Martin recently admitted that it wasn't clear what the rule meant. And because this rule bypassed the mandatory public consultation process, will most likely be struck down.

Nevertheless, it's a symbolic victory for the well-funded "Net Neutrality" campaign - and a remarkable comeback for an issue that was all but dead a year ago.

Citizen and non-profit networks - who don't have the deep pockets necessary to lobby in DC - are likely to be disproportionately hurt. For example Brett Glass, who runs a small community wireless ISP in Laramie, Wyoming, wrote this weekend that tying the hands of the operator would make operating a wireless ISP impossible, and would harm long-term investment in US broadband. Business models which depend on an "ultra-fast lane", for example for delivering real-time video monitoring or movies, are now vulnerable to activists' challenge, as they clearly "violate neutrality rules".

"A ruling against Comcast would harm every broadband provider, but especially the smaller ones and the ones that are breaking new ground by covering previously unserved areas," wrote Glass.

At stake is the ability of an ISP to manage traffic on its network. Neutrality advocates want to regulate the ability of ISPs to prioritize traffic by application type because it violates "Free Speech" - even if the application in question is a worm, or (more commonly) network performance for all users is hampered by a few bandwidth hogs.

(Vuze, the FCC's petitioner, operates no network of its own.)

"Such traffic-specific profiling and flow throttling set[s] the stage for ISPs to pick winners and losers on the 'Net, to do more than determine how wide someone's pipe would be - to control what they could do, and when," wrote Ars Technica's Net Neutrality activist Nate Anderson in a sentence that does much to encapsulate the paranoia of the campaign.

But now armchair ideologues can control who does what (and how) on a private network between consenting adults - a very strange sort of "free speech" victory.

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