The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will investigate complaints that Comcast Corp. actively interferes with internet traffic as its subscribers try to share files online, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said on Jan. 8.

A coalition of consumer groups and legal scholars asked the agency in November to stop Comcast from discriminating against certain types of data. Two groups also asked the FCC to fine the nation’s No. 2 internet provider $195,000 for every affected subscriber.

“Sure, we’re going to investigate and make sure that no consumer is going to be blocked,” Martin told an audience at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In an investigation last year, The Associated Press (AP) found that Comcast in some cases hindered file sharing by subscribers who used BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing program. The findings, which AP first reported Oct. 19, 2007, confirmed claims by users who also noticed interference with other file-sharing applications.

“We look forward to responding to any FCC inquiries regarding our broadband network management,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president at Philadelphia-based Comcast.

Comcast denies that it blocks file sharing, but acknowledged after the AP story that it was “delaying” some of the traffic between computers that share files. The company said the intervention was necessary to improve the surfing experience for the majority of its subscribers.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing is a common way to illegally exchange copyright-protected files, such as movies and music—but schools, colleges, companies, and other organizations also use file-sharing services for legal distribution of videos and other large files. For instance, educators, students, and researchers often use BitTorrent and other P2P services to share large data sets compiled during their research.

If internet service providers hinder or control that traffic, it makes them important gatekeepers of internet content. And such control could have dangerous implications for schools and others.

The FCC’s response will be an important test of its willingness to enforce “net neutrality,” the principle that internet traffic be treated equally by carriers. The agency has a broadly stated policy supporting the concept, but its position hasn’t been tested in a real-world case.

The FCC’s policy statement makes an exception for “reasonable traffic management.” Comcast contends its practices fall under that exception.

“The question is going to arise: Are they reasonable network practices?” Martin said on Jan. 8. “When they have reasonable network practices, they should disclose those and make those public.”

Comcast subscribers who asked the company about the interference before the AP story ran were met with flat denials.

“Comcast plans to work with the commission in its desire to bring more transparency for consumers regarding broadband network management,” Cohen said. “We do disclose in our terms of use our right to manage our network for the benefit of all customers.”

Martin’s announcement pleased Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press, one of the consumer groups that had sought FCC intervention.

“We hope the chairman’s statements, made two months after we filed our complaint, will lead to immediate and accelerated action,” Ammori said in a prepared release.

Martin also said the FCC was looking at complaints that wireless carriers denied text-messaging “short codes” to some applicants. The five-digit numbers are a popular way to sign up for updates on everything from sports to politics to entertainment news.

Verizon Wireless in late September denied a request by Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, to use its mobile network for a sign-up text messaging program.

The company reversed course just a day later, calling it a mistake and an “isolated incident.”

Verizon Wireless has also denied a short code to a Swedish company, Rebtel Networks AB, that operates a service similar to a virtual calling card, allowing users to avoid paying the carrier’s international rates on their cell-phone calls. Verizon Wireless has stuck to that denial, saying it does want to provide an advertising venue to a competitor.

“I tell the staff that they should act on all of those complaints and investigate all of them,” Martin said.

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