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FCC hints at taking action against Comcast

Comcast might get a slap on the wrist from federal regulators as the agency's chief indicates he is "troubled" by its response to accusations it was slowing or blocking P2P traffic.

The Federal Communications Commission is edging toward taking action against cable operator Comcast for monkeying with its customers' peer-to-peer traffic, according to several news reports.

On Friday FCC Chairman Kevin Martin indicated during a speech at Stanford University's Law School that the commission may take action against the cable operator, which has been accused of blocking or slowing down the peer-to-peer file sharing service BitTorrent on its broadband network.

Martin didn't say for certain that the FCC would take action against Comcast. But he did say that he was troubled by Comcast's initial denial of slowing or blocking traffic, according to news reports from people who attended the speech. What worried him most was the fact that Comcast wasn't forthcoming to its customers about what it was doing.

"A hallmark of what should be seen as a reasonable business practice is certainly whether or not the people engaging in that practice are willing to describe it publicly," The Wall Street Journal quoted Martin as saying.

Comcast has argued that it doesn't block P2P traffic. Instead, it says it simply slows down packets so that it can better manage its network. The company has complained that file sharing software, such that used by BitTorrent, permits a few customers to use an inordinate amount of bandwidth, which degrades the network performance for the vast majority of its customers.

Martin has said he understands the need for companies to manage their networks. And he has said that reasonable network management practices are acceptable.

But video-sharing companies, academics, and public-interest groups say that Comcast's actions go beyond simple network management and actually violate several principles outlined by the FCC to ensure that traffic flows freely over the Internet. These groups have launched formal complaints against Comcast, and the FCC has been looking into these complaints.

The FCC held an open hearing last month to discuss whether or not Comcast went too far in its "traffic shaping" measures and what could be done to make the experience more transparent to consumers.

But now it looks like Chairman Martin, and by extension the commission, sees Comcast as going beyond simply managing its network. But even if the FCC decides that Comcast has violated Net neutrality principles, it's unclear what the agency can actually do to Comcast. The principles are not agency regulation. And there are no Net neutrality laws on the books, so it's hard to say what kind of enforcement the FCC can impose.

Still, if the FCC finds that Comcast has violated its Net neutrality principles, it will be a big deal. In the past, carriers have argued that regulation and new laws were not needed because network operators had not abused their power as network gatekeepers. But if the FCC acknowledges that one major broadband provider has crossed this line, then it could add more weight to the arguments of those supporting Net neutrality legislation.