A coalition of consumer groups and legal scholars on Thursday formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to stop Comcast Corp. from interfering with file sharing by its Internet subscribers.
Two of the groups are also asking the FCC to fine Comcast $195,000 for every affected subscriber.
The petitions will be the first real test of the FCC's stance on the so-called "Net Neutrality" issue. The agency has said that Internet service providers can't block customers from Web sites or from using Internet-based applications, but it has not had to enforce that policy, given the long-standing industry practice of treating all Internet traffic substantially equally.
That practice has started to fray. In tests spanning several states, The Associated Press found that Comcast hindered file sharing by subscribers who used BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing program. The findings, first reported Oct. 19, confirmed claims by users, who also noticed interference with other file-sharing applications.
Comcast is the country's largest cable company and has 12.9 million Internet subscribers, making it the second-largest Internet service provider. Spokesman Charlie Douglas had no immediate response to the filings, saying that the company needed time to study them.
Comcast previously denied that it was blocking file sharing, but acknowledged last week that it was "delaying" some of the traffic between computers that share files.
In practice, the company blocks requests from users who are trying to retrieve files from a Comcast subscriber's computer for a period of time. But it eventually lets the requests through if they are repeated.
In one AP test, a request went through after 10 minutes of trying. The technology does not directly affect downloads of BitTorrent files by Comcast subscribers, only uploads.
Comcast has said the interference is intended to improve the Internet experience for all its subscribers, noting that a relatively small number of file sharers is enough to slow down its network.
If other ISPs follow in Comcast's footsteps, file sharing would essentially crawl to a halt. While the technology is a popular way to illegally share copyright movies and music, legal uses are proliferating, particularly in movie distribution.
"They're blocking an innovative application that could be a competitor to cable TV," said Marvin Ammori, general counsel at Free Press, one of the advocacy groups behind the petition to the FCC.
The petition asks the commission to immediately declare that Comcast is violating the FCC's policy. The co-signers are Consumer Federation of America; Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports; Media Access Project; and professors at the Internet practices of the Yale, Harvard and Stanford law schools.
Free Press and another group, Public Knowledge, are separately filing a formal complaint that asks the FCC to demand a "forfeiture" from Comcast of $195,000 per affected subscriber.
The number is based on the statutory maximum of $97,500 for a single continuing violation, doubled by what the groups see as deception on the company's part. Comcast kept its practice secret until publicized by the AP, saying that it couldn't divulge the inner workings of its network for security reasons. Its filtering technique also involves the company forging network messages so that they appear to come from subscriber and non-subscriber computers.
The complaint includes affidavits from three Comcast subscribers who say they have been affected by Comcast's interference. The complaint asks the FCC to determine the total number of affected subscribers.
It's not clear how quickly the FCC would act on the filings.
"The FCC should be aggressively reviewing these cases because they go to ensuring the freedom and openness of the Internet which is so vital to our communications future and to our civic dialogue," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement.
The FCC's policy statement, which says that consumers are allowed to run the Internet applications of their choice, makes an exception for "reasonable network management" by Internet service providers. Comcast appears to be counting on its filter falling under that exception.
"If Comcast is right — that what it's doing meets the policy statement — then anyone can start blocking BitTorrent tomorrow," Ammori said.