Comcast’s About-Face on BitTorrent

Late last year, the Associated Press exposed Comcast for cutting off access to legal file-sharing programs like BitTorrent. Since then, in the face of incredible amounts of evidence to the contrary, Comcast has insisted that it “does not block any Web site, application or Web protocol including peer-to-peer services.”

However, today the Wall Street Journal reported that Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, and BitTorrent were announcing plans to collaborate to distribute large files over the cable company’s broadband network. One has to wonder why a formal announcement of this sort would be necessary if Comcast has, as they have so vehemently claimed, never blocked internet content or applications. This announcement only confirms Comcast’s history of deception and broken promises. It is encouraging to see Comcast beginning to play well with others, but we can’t just take their word that the Internet is now in safe hands. This doesn’t change the urgent need for the Federal Communications Commission to take action.

A Drop in the Bucket

“The issue of Net Neutrality is bigger than Comcast and BitTorrent, said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press. “This agreement does nothing to protect the many other peer-to-peer companies from blocking, nor does it protect future innovative applications and services. Finally, it does nothing to prevent other phone and cable companies from blocking. Innovators should not have to negotiate side deals with phone and cable companies to operate without discrimination. The Internet has always been a level playing field, and we need to keep it that way.”

Today’s announcement is the direct result of public pressure — and the threat of FCC action — against Comcast. Since January the FCC has been investigating Comcast’s blocking of BitTorrent. Just four weeks ago Comcast was roundly criticized by lawmakers, internet scholars, telecom lawyers, and concerned citizens at a public FCC hearing in Boston, Massachusetts. Comcast’s talks with BitTorrent come as the FCC is gearing up for a second hearing on the issue of Internet discrimination right outside Silicon Valley at Stanford University on April 17th.

Power to the People

Comcast’s preemptive maneuvering, in advance of the Stanford hearing, is an illustration of the need for a national public dialog on the future of the Internet. Rep. Ed Markey (D-M.A.) has proposed exactly such a national conversation in the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008 (HR 5353). In a statement released today on his website, Rep. Markey commented on the Comcast-BitTorrent discussions: “I believe this episode underscores the continuing need for overarching legislation so that all broadband providers and affected providers of content, applications, and services are covered. The bill (H.R. 5252) introduced by myself and Representative Chip Pickering (R-MS), establishes national broadband policy to protect Internet freedom for entrepreneurs and consumers.”

Until the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008 is passed, FCC public hearings like the one coming up at Stanford are the public’s best chance to make their voice heard. In the past three months Comcast’s discussions with BitTorrent are a testament to the power of the public’s voice. In recent months, more than 23,000 activists sent letters to the FCC demanding an end to Comcast’s practice of blocking peer-to-peer traffic on its network.

We can’t afford to let the old phone and cable giants do whatever they want online until they get caught. The Internet is an engine for new ideas, a channel for new voices, and a vital keystone in our democracy. With so much at stake we must ensure that the Internet remains free from the whims of corporate gatekeepers. This will take more than a handshake and a promise.

To find out more information about the FCC’s public hearing at Stanford University visit:

Read the Wall Street Journal article announcing the collaboration:

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