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FCC wants to know: Is degrading P2P traffic 'reasonable'?

Agency seeks public comment as first step in deciding how far Internet service providers can go before they transcend "reasonable network management" and run afoul of federal policy.

Update 10:53 a.m. PST: This blog was updated to add information about a third petition related to antidiscrimination rules for text messaging.

As foreshadowed at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, federal regulators this week took the first formal step into investigating complaints about how Internet service providers, such as Comcast, manage peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic on their networks.

The Federal Communications Commission late on Monday posted requests for public comment about two such petitions, both of which deal with the question of what practices constitute "reasonable network management"--and therefore jibe with the FCC's policies. The agency is also seeking feedback on how to handle a third petition dealing with wireless companies' policies for shuttling text messages.

One petition was filed in November by a collection of consumer advocacy groups that supports Net neutrality regulations, including Free Press, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project, and Consumers Union. Responding to reports that Comcast was throttling BitTorrent traffic, they asked the FCC to declare that "degrading peer-to-peer traffic" violates the FCC's Internet policy statement, which says consumers can generally use the applications and access the Web sites of their choosing, with an exception for "reasonable network management."

Comcast, for its part, has maintained all along that it abides by those principles and that any traffic management falls within that exception.

The second related petition came from Vuze, a file-sharing application that specializes in videos. The firm asked the FCC to "clarify" what it means by "reasonable network management" and, clearly in an attempt to protect its service, "to establish that such network management does not permit network operators to block, degrade or unreasonably discriminate against lawful Internet applications, content or technologies."

A third petition, filed jointly by many of the same consumer groups that filed the peer-to-peer petition, asks the FCC to declare that text-messaging services are subject to that bars telecommunications companies from engaging in "any unjust or unreasonable discrimination" related to charges, services, and other practices. The request, filed in December, appears to stem primarily from a situation in which Verizon Wireless initially refused to carry text messages from a prominent reproductive rights activist group.

Anyone who has something to say about the petitions will have until February 13 to do so at the FCC's Web site or by postal mail. After reviewing the comments, the FCC is expected to decide whether to grant what the petitioners are requesting.

"These inquiries will go a long way to setting out a road map for determining who will control the Internet," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge.

The petitions being addressed are fairly broad, but FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said at CES last week that the agency would also be looking into the specific situations involving Comcast Verizon Wireless. According to an Associated Press report from Monday, Comcast confirmed receiving a "letter of inquiry" from the FCC and said it looked forward to responding.

What will actually emerge from the inquiry--for instance, what sort of penalties would be imposed on companies found to have violated the FCC's principles--seems less clear.

"We don't comment on potential enforcement matters," FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said Tuesday.