Federal regulators on Monday said they are ready to discipline Internet service providers who secretly favor certain types of data traffic, like Web surfing, over others, like file sharing.
At a hearing over allegations of traffic discrimination by Comcast Corp., the Federal Communications Commission chairman said the complaints underscore the need to enforce the FCC's current broad principles intended to promote so-called "Net neutrality."
"The commission is ready, willing and able to step in if necessary to correct any practices that are ongoing today," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in opening statements of the hearing at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Martin said service providers should be allowed to take reasonable steps to make efficient use of their networks at a time when consumers' growing appetite for Web video threatens to bump up against networks' capacity limits. But he said such management policies must be disclosed.
"Consumers need to know if and how network management practices distinguish between different applications, so they can configure their own applications and systems properly," Martin said.
Consumer groups and a provider of online video have filed complaints alleging Comcast hampered traffic between users without notice, violating the Internet's tradition of equal treatment of traffic. Two of the groups also asked the FCC to fine Comcast.
The issue got broad attention after an Associated Press story in October documented Comcast's practices. Comcast later acknowledged that it sometimes delays file-sharing traffic for subscribers as a way to keep Web traffic flowing for everyone.
File sharing applications, exemplified by BitTorrent and the original Napster, have been a tool for piracy of copyrighted content, but are increasingly used as a cheap route for companies to distribute large files, like movies.
Commissioner Michael Copps, a champion of so-called open Internet policies, called for "clear rules of the road for those who operate on the edge of the networks — consumers and entrepreneurs — and those who operate the network."
Copps said the five-member panel "should establish a systematic, expeditious case-by-case approach for adjudicating claims of discrimination" against Internet service providers.
The FCC heard testimony from open Internet advocates, law professors and representatives of Comcast and rival Verizon Communications Inc. to learn more about the implications of the Comcast case as they seek to write regulations. Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation to address how much freedom Internet service providers should have to block or delay content on their networks.
At Monday's hearing, David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast, said his firm interrupts file-sharing traffic in a neighborhood when it's so heavy that it would slow other kinds of traffic in the area.
Cohen said the practice creates a largely imperceptible delay when a certain type of traffic — say, an upload of video — is rerouted elsewhere on the network, but is not blocked.
"We have chosen the least intrusive method to help the vast majority of our customers avoid service degradation," Cohen said.
"There is nothing wrong with network management — every broadband network is managed," he said. "Our customers want us to fight spam and viruses, and they want us to fight congestion," he said.
Tom Tauke, executive vice president at Verizon, said his company does not handle bottlenecks in the same way because its network architecture is configured differently than Comcast's, making such management steps unnecessary.
Critics said Comcast's network management policy amounts to blocking, rather than simply delaying traffic.
"Whatever we think reasonable network management is, it should not include blocking lawful applications," said Timothy Wu, a Columbia University law professor credited with coining the term Net neutrality. "It should not include discrimination against applications, and blocking of lawful applications."
Wu said the issue of disclosure of network practices is crucial for Internet firms — many of them startups — that must rely on venture capital funding for survival. If investors learn that major broadband providers will delay or block a particular firm's Internet transmissions, they'll take their money elsewhere, he said.
Another speaker at the hearing, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has sponsored legislation that would make Net neutrality the law. While acknowledging the need to manage networks, Markey warned that a failure to rein in Internet service providers could turn the Internet into a tool for powerful interests, rather than a means of free-flowing communication.
"The beauty of the Internet is that it's got a wonderfully chaotic, evolving nature," Markey said.
Markey chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.