FCC: Comcast Was Wrong to Restrict Access to Select Websites

But Decision Doesn't Fully Endorse Net Neutrality

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Were Comcast Corp.'s actions to block internet access to certain heavily trafficked peer-to-peer and file-sharing sites undue and discriminatory? Three of five Federal Communications Commissioners believed so, although it stopped short of endorsing a full network-neutrality policy.

Consumer groups quickly labeled the action a "landmark decision" in the debate about the rights consumers have to get internet content without discrimination -- so called network neutrality -- which has pitted internet companies such as Google and eBay against cable and phone companies such as Comcast and AT&T. Some industry groups, however, charged the FCC overstepped its legal authority.

Today the commission majority, which included FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin and commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, said it should regulate such internet-blocking actions. Commissioners, Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell, however, said the government has little authority to act in how private companies manage their networks, though Ms. Tate said Comcast should have disclosed its practices to its subscribers.

Proponents of net neutrality have argued that without action by the FCC, phone and cable companies could start imposing toll charges to content providers for the privilege of distributing content. Favored providers could get faster access to consumers' doorsteps and less favored ones could having difficulty competing. Opponents, meanwhile, believe data providers should be able to control their pipes as they see fit. They say many consumers use very high-bandwidth applications that risk slowing down the pipes for everyone else.

After the Associated Press publicized the blocking last year, Comcast agreed to change the way it handles network management. In a statement today, Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's senior director corporate communications and government affairs, said the company was "gratified" there was no fine but "disappointed" in the commission's conclusion. The company said it may appeal the decision.

"We believe that our network management choices were reasonable, wholly consistent with industry practices and that we did not block access to Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer service," she said.
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