Comcast Pushes 'P2P Bill Of Rights'

The Philadelphia-based communications giant said it will work with New York-based Pando Networks, a provider of managed P2P content delivery services to create the "P2P Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" (BRR) for peer-to-peer (P2P) users and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The companies will collaborate with "industry experts," other ISPs and P2P companies and content providers to set up an initiative that will recommend "best practices."

"The purpose would be to clarify what choices and controls consumers should have when using P2P applications as well as what processes and practices ISPs should use to manage P2P applications running on their networks," the company said in a statement.

However, industry cynics say the move is to rehab the company's corporate image after coming under fire by several technology advocacy groups, such as the Free Press and Public Knowledge, that filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission last November. According to the petitions, Comcast interfered with managing peer-to-peer applications from software providers BitTorrent, which has been called a "bandwidth hog."

Comcast denied the practice.

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"Comcast does not, has not and will not block any Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services, and no one has demonstrated otherwise," Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said in a statement. "We engage in reasonable network management to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience, and we do so consistently with FCC policy."

In October 2007, the Associated Press challenged Cohen's assertion of not having proof of peer-to-peer blocking and conducted a nationwide test. The AP said that if Comcast's P2P practices were applied by other ISPs, "the technology Comcast is using would be a crippling blow to the BitTorrent, eDonkey and Gnutella file-sharing networks. While these are mainly known as sources of copyright music, software and movies, BitTorrent in particular is emerging as a legitimate tool for quickly disseminating legal content. Comcast's interference, on the other hand, appears to be an aggressive way of managing its network to keep file-sharing traffic from swallowing too much bandwidth and affecting the Internet speeds of other subscribers."

The advocacy groups appealed to the FCC, and in their petition accused Comcast of "depriving users of competition among content-providers."

"[Comcast] is blatantly violating the FCC's Internet Policy Statement by degrading a range of peer-to-peer applications. Comcast has also engaged in deceptive practices and continues to do so," the groups said in their petition. "It falsely denied degrading peer-to-peer applications and now continues to degrade applications without informing users and while advertising access to the Internet. Degrading applications thwarts competition among Internet content. Peer-to-peer protocols benefit distributors of large files. If these protocols are burdened, content-providers that use server-client distribution will receive a skewed competitive advantage unrelated to consumer preferences. "

In March, Comcast and BitTorrent kissed and made up, saying they will "undertake a collaborative effortto address issues associated with rich media content and network capacity management." BitTorrent said it didn't like Comcast's practices, but conceded that, in essence, it software hogged bandwidth.

"While we think there were other management techniques that could have been deployed, we understand why Comcast and other ISPs adopted the approach that they did initially," said Eric Klinker, BitTorrent's CTO in a statement. "We are pleased that Comcast understands changing traffic patterns and wants to collaborate with us to migrate to techniques that the Internet community will find to be more transparent."

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin also said he was pleased with the reconciliation between the companies, but expressed that he still had doubts about Comcast.

"I am concerned, though, that Comcast has not made clear when they will stop this discriminatory practice," said Martin in a statement. "It appears this practice will continue throughout the country until the end of the year and in some markets, even longer. While it may take time to implement its preferred new traffic management technique, it is not at all obvious why Comcast couldn't stop its current practice of arbitrarily blocking its broadband customers from using certain applications. Comcast should provide its broadband customers as well as the Commission with a commitment of a date certain by when it will stop this practice."

Miller Tabak and Co. financial analyst David Joyce, who covers Comcast, looks at the situation differently.

"Martin is forcing them to manage bandwidth hogs," he said. "The FCC spun this as an unfair holding back of services. So, Comcast is fending off negative attacks, and they have to do things to remain competitive."

Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, one of the FCC petitioners, isn't happy with the company's latest announcement either, albeit, for different reasons.

"This so-called agreement is simply another way for Comcast to try to evade punishment for its blocking and degrading of peer-to-peer services for its customers," said Sohn on her Web blog. "The fact that Comcast is trying to come up with a Bill of Rights for customers is ludicrous. This is the company that lied for a year. Comcast should fix its internal problems with customers being kicked off the Internet service for no good reason, or are disappointed about having programming switched to expensive digital services before it starts pretending to solve the problems of the Internet that it helped to cause."