- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

Comcast Corp., under investigation by federal media regulators over reports it slows Internet access to file-sharing programs, yesterday said it will no longer treat peer-to-peer files differently than other Web traffic.

Philadelphia-based Comcast is partnering with BitTorrent Inc. to develop ways that Internet users can share large files without disrupting the experience of other subscribers. Right now, engineers at the Internet service provider (ISP) sometimes give preference to traditional Web traffic over peer-to-peer file sharing that uses more bandwidth.

While there is no federal law requiring “net neutrality,” the Federal Communications Commission is investigating complaints that Comcast impedes subscribers’ use of BitTorrent, a protocol for sharing video-rich files.

The issue is a contentious one. Comcast publicly defended its network management policies at a special FCC hearing on the matter last month, saying such practices were necessary to speed the flow of most network traffic. But advocates of net neutrality say such discretion threatens the “openness” of the Internet, and many say Comcast did not adequately disclose its policies beforehand.

But yesterday, Comcast said it will start managing Web traffic in a way that is “protocol agnostic” by the end of the year.

“I think both sides are seeing that the issue of [peer-to-peer] protocols and Internet traffic isn’t going away and now has come together,” Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said. “We think it shows the marketplace is working.”

Rather than isolate bandwidth-intensive applications like BitTorrent, Comcast will focus on isolating the most bandwidth-intensive users, said Ashwin Navin, president and co-founder of San Francisco-based BitTorrent. Comcast said it will refine its new practices based on feedback and test results.

Mr. Navin said the companies have been discussing the challenge of managing peer-to-peer applications for about two years. They plan to make their discussions public to encourage an industry dialogue.

News of the collaboration was hailed by some as evidence that the government does not need to intervene in disputes between ISPs and developers of peer-to-peer file-sharing applications.

“It is precisely this kind of private sector solution that has been the bedrock of Internet governance since its inception,” said FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, a Republican. “Government mandates cannot possibly contemplate the myriad complexities and nuances of the Internet marketplace. Today’s announcement obviates the need for any further government intrusion into this matter.”

Bret Swanson, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, called the collaboration between Comcast and BitTorrent “a huge win for common sense and for a healthy, growing Internet,” adding that regulation would have deterred competition by discouraging investment.

But while FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said he was “pleased” by the news, he questioned why Comcast couldn’t immediately stop its current practice of slowing access to peer-to-peer applications.

“It appears this practice will continue throughout the country until the end of the year and in some markets, even longer,” Mr. Martin, a Republican, said. “Comcast should provide its broadband customers as well as the commission with a commitment of a date-certain by when it will stop this practice.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat who has proposed a bill that would give the FCC and states authority to enforce net neutrality rules, said legislation is still needed to ensure other ISPs will follow suit. “Today’s announcement does not include any statement by Comcast that it concedes that the FCC has authority to act in this area to protect Internet freedom,” Mr. Markey said in a statement.

Craig Aaron, spokesman for advocacy group Free Press, said the negotiations wouldn’t have occurred in the first place had it not been for public pressure on Comcast. “We may have caught Comcast in this one instance but who knows what they’re doing to the other innovating companies that haven’t cut a deal,” he said.

The FCC is holding a second hearing on network management issues in mid-April. Verizon earlier this month said it was was able to speed up peer-to-peer downloads by as much as 60 percent when working with file-sharing company Pando Networks.

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