Order Against Comcast Issued, FCC Credits EFF
The FCC has finally published its order (adopted on August 1) directing Comcast to stop blocking BitTorrent traffic. The 34-page ruling makes for surprisingly enjoyable reading, at least as FCC publications go. The order follows the basic outline that was explained by Chairman Martin in his statement on August 1, 2008. But there are some interesting additional tidbits:
- The FCC specifically cites and credits EFF's testing in discussing Comcast's BitTorrent blocking activities. And it also relies explicitly on evidence gathered by individual Internet users Adam Lynn, Jeffrey Pearlman, David Gerisch, Dean Fox, and Robert Topolski. The order concludes with this remarkable invitation: "We invite ... members of the public to keep a watchful eye on Comcast." And, as it happens, EFF is building the Switzerland network testing tool to help Internet users to do just that!
- The Commission dismisses Comcast's claim that it was merely "delaying" BitTorrent traffic as "verbal gymnastics," specifically finding that "the company has engaged in blocking." Glad to see we can put that semantic debate to rest.
- The FCC sets out a standard for reviewing discrimination undertaken in the name of "reasonable network management": the "practice should further a critically important interest and be narrowly or carefully tailored to serve that interest." According to the FCC, even if congestion management was "critically important," Comcast's methods were hopelessly over- and under-inclusive. The Commission cited EFF's testing on this point, noting that Comcast admitted to blocking BitTorrent seeding without regard to neighborhood congestion or user-specific bandwidth usage.
- Also in accord with the comments submitted by EFF, the FCC called Comcast out for its failure to disclose its practices to its customers, noting that "Comcast's first reaction to allegations of discriminatory treatment was not honesty, but at best misdirection and obfuscation."
- The FCC spends 12 pages justifying its regulatory authority to issue the order, invoking its Title I "ancillary jurisdiction" to regulate in the name of "national Internet policy" as described in seven statutory provisions, all of which speak in general terms about "promoting deployment," "promoting accessibility," "reducing market entry barriers," and the like. Reading this section of the order, one can't help but feel sympathy for Commissioner McDowell, who in his dissent worries that "under the analysis set forth in the order, the Commission can apparently do anything so long as it frames its actions in terms of promoting the Internet or broadband deployment." If Comcast sues to overturn the order, you can be sure that this is where it will focus its attack.
- And now for the remedy. Quoting Ronald Reagan's mantra, "trust but verify," the Commission has ordered Comcast to do 3 things within 30 days:
(1) disclose to the Commission [but not the public?] the precise contours of the network management practices at issue here, including what equipment has been utilized, when it began to be employed, when and under what circumstances it has been used, how it has been configured, what protocols have been affected, and where it has been deployed;
(2) submit a compliance plan to the Commission with interim benchmarks that describes how it intends to transition from discriminatory to nondiscriminatory network management practices by the end of the year; and
(3) disclose to the Commission and the public the details of the network management practices that it intends to deploy following the termination of its current practices, including the thresholds that will trigger any limits on customers’ access to bandwidth.
So, while we continue to be worried about the future risk of regulatory capture of the FCC by large ISPs, and have our doubts about the Commission's authority to regulate the Internet, the order hits the nail on the head when it comes to analyzing what Comcast actually was up to.