Comcast vs. BitTorrent to be focus of FCC hearing

Cable company and foes to be questioned as agency considers new nondiscrimination regulations targeting broadband providers.

The high-profile squabble over Comcast's slowdown of BitTorrent file-sharing traffic--and broader questions of network handling by Internet service providers--is set for public scrutiny Monday at a federal hearing.

This time, the Federal Communications Commission will depart its headquarters just off the National Mall in Washington and head north to a courtroom on Harvard Law School's campus in Cambridge, Mass. (The FCC wouldn't comment on why the site was selected, but Boston is the home turf of Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, who chairs a House Internet subcommittee.)

The hearing, which will be open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis and be otherwise accessible via an "audio-only" Webcast on the FCC site. It's an outgrowth of the agency's recently launched inquiry into what constitutes "reasonable" network management practices by Internet service providers.

The FCC in 2005 said broadband companies should not block or interfere with lawful Internet use, unless they're doing so for "reasonable" network management purposes, but revelations that Comcast was stalling uploads to BitTorrent protocol clients raised new questions about what "reasonable" means.

The public forum will give the commissioners a chance to quiz company executives and networking experts, and perhaps reveal what they may do next. The regulators have already accepted thousands of written comments from private citizens, interest groups, and corporations concerned about the topic. They may choose, based on the comments, to start a process that would more clearly establish what Internet service providers may and may not do, but they're not obligated to do so.

The event--coupled with Rep. Markey's introduction of an arguably less-regulatory Net neutrality bill last week--also signals a clear revival of a temporarily dormant debate over whether Net neutrality laws are needed.

"What we're going to see on Monday is a trial of the Internet," said Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu who has written extensively in favor of Net neutrality regulations and is slated to speak on a panel Monday. "Comcast is in the docket, accused of crimes against the public interest, and we'll see how well they are able to defend themselves."

Net neutrality, of course, is the idea that network operators like AT&T and Comcast should be prohibited from prioritizing Web content and applications, or charging content owners extra fees for premium delivery. Two years ago, Congress considered handing the FCC extensive power to regulate Internet practices, but it rejected the proposals.

Proponents say such policies are necessary to promote democracy itself--and to ensure that little guys won't be squeezed out of the Internet ecosystem in favor of larger, deeper-pocketed entities. But opponents, including the network operators, say they deserve flexibility to manage their networks as they see fit to serve their customers' interests--for instance, blocking spam and ensuring that use of high-bandwidth applications by some users at peak times doesn't clog the pipes for everyone else.

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