On the eve of the Federal Communications Commission’s expected vote to punish Comcast for blocking peer-to-peer traffic on its network without properly informing subscribers, the agency is taking some fire from Congress.
In a letter sent today to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) questioned the commission’s legal authority to intervene and argued that the unregulated market is moving to solve the problem of network management.
The expected vote at tomorrow’s FCC meeting stems from Comcast’s blocking of peer-to-peer traffic from BitTorrent, and its alleged failure to provide adequate notification to its subscribers.
Earlier this month, Martin circulated a draft order, slated to come up for a vote in tomorrow’s open meeting, that would require Comcast to alter the way it handles traffic and provide compliance updates to the commission.
FCC spokespeople did not return requests for comment by press time.
An affirmative vote tomorrow would be a major victory for proponents of Net neutrality, and by some measures, their first. Several bills have appeared in Congress seeking to codify the principle that all network traffic should be treated equally, and all have failed.
The FCC has held several public hearings to discuss the matter, but tomorrow’s vote would be the first concrete action it has taken on the matter.
Part of the FCC’s slowness to act on the issue comes from uncertainties over its legal authority. In August 2005, the FCC introduced a set of principles stating, among other things, that consumers have the right to access any legal application on a broadband network.
But since those principles never went through the FCC’s formal rule-making process, ISPs, lawmakers and some Republicans on the commission have questioned whether it has the authority to enforce them, as it’s widely expected to do tomorrow.
In his letter, Boehner first took issue with the need for government to involve itself with how ISPs manage their networks, then chastised Martin for acting beyond his authority.
“Adding insult to injury, it appears you are wading into this debate on very shaky procedural and legal grounds,” he wrote. “Your continued pursuit of this matter suggests that you are making not only a poor policy judgment, but a poor legal one, as well.”
Boehner warmed up an old chestnut of Net neutrality opponents, arguing that the free market had allowed the Internet to flourish and that government intervention would only stifle the wellspring of innovation that it has become.
[cob:Special_Report]”Your heavy-handed attempts to inject the FCC into the middle of that process threaten to hijack the evolution of the Internet to everyone’s detriment,” Boehner wrote. “It will also deter the very investment we need for the Internet to continue growing to meet the increasing demands being placed on it.”
Responding to the letter, Public Knowledge, one of the groups that has been advocating for government action, criticized Boehner’s premise that Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.
“It is a shame that the harm Comcast has done to the Internet has not been appreciated by Leader Boehner,” Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge’s cofounder and president, said in a statement.
“The FCC’s action, and the Chairman’s leadership, is entirely praiseworthy,” she said. “Those who support innovation and competition should praise the Commission, not condemn it.”