Federal regulators are poised to slap the corporate wrist of Comcast, the nation's leading cable operator and second-largest broadband provider, for interfering surreptitiously and deceptively with its customers' use of BitTorrent, a popular program for sharing files online. The action by the Federal Communications Commission, expected to be made official Friday, comes months after Comcast pledged to stop singling out BitTorrent when managing its broadband customers' traffic. Nevertheless, the commission's stance is significant and welcome.
The ruckus began last fall, when tests showed that Comcast was blocking some BitTorrent uploads in a way that hid the interference and its source. BitTorrent is a file-sharing program favored by movie and software pirates, but it's also used for legal video sales and other legitimate services. The software is so popular, researchers have estimated that a third or more of all Internet traffic comes from BitTorrent transfers. In response, some Internet providers have tried to limit the use of BitTorrent and other file-sharing applications in the hope of reducing congestion on their networks.
It's one thing to manage a network, but it's another to take actions that prevent the market -- that is, Internet users -- from deciding who wins and loses online. That's why the FCC adopted a policy almost three years ago declaring that the public is entitled to use whatever lawful applications and services it chooses, and to access any lawful content. Comcast violated that policy by disrupting services such as Vuze, which uses BitTorrent to distribute the movies, TV shows and clips it has licensed. Online video sites may be no threat to Comcast's cable offerings today. But they could become real competitors over the next decade, as millions of broadband users connect their television sets to the Net. By barring Comcast and other Internet providers from fighting congestion with techniques that mislead consumers or discriminate against certain applications, the FCC will send an extremely important signal about how to manage networks without skewing the market for products and services.