April 29, 2008
is a new monthly column covering artistic rights, digital media and other open source issues by regular Wiretap contributor Larisa Mann
Last week the Federal Communication Commission held a hearing at Stanford University on how the government should regulate internet traffic. Folks who heard about it may have thought, “Wait a minute, didn’t they just have a hearing on this a few weeks before?” They did. A second hearing was scheduled after major internet service provider Comcast hired people to fill seats at the original hearing, preventing other interested parties from attending. After the scandal was revealed (including photos of Comcast’s hired decoys sleeping) the FCC set up a second hearing.
What was so important about an FCC hearing that Comcast felt compelled to block the public from attending? Funnily enough, Comcast is a part of the story.
Last year, Associated Press conducted file-sharing tests and reported that Comcast was filtering internet traffic. Since then, several other organizations have tested Comcast’s internet service and all agree that certain “packets” of information are being blocked or slowed by Comcast. Similar testing has revealed that other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also filter content — favoring certain internet users over others.
Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig and Free Press’ Ben Scott wrote in an SF Chronicle Op-Ed that by secretly blocking BitTorrent, a file-sharing technology powerful enough to bring you HDTV content, Comcast was using its control over the network to stifle a competitor to their cable TV service. It’s a curious move because, as Lessig and Scott pointed out, BitTorrent is “used by everyone from the Hollywood studios to NASA.”
Different Prices For Different Speeds
This is a big deal, because the internet’s future is connected to the telephone and telecommunications networks it runs on. The public relies on these networks for communication and the U.S. government has traditionally regulated their use. Specifically, regulation made it illegal for companies providing these services to discriminate against users. In other words, your phone call has to be as clear as my phone call.
Up until a few years ago, this was true for the internet as well — it was illegal for ISPs to selectively block internet traffic. But in 2005, after a landmark court case, and much lobbying by the telecommunications industry (a.k.a. “telcos” — TimeWarner, AT&T, Comcast etc.), the FCC reclassified internet service as “information” rather than “communication” services.