Under fire for allegedly blocking a popular software program for watching video online, Comcast pledged Thursday not to discriminate against...
WASHINGTON — Under fire for allegedly blocking a popular software program for watching video online, Comcast pledged Thursday not to discriminate against specific technology as it tries to keep increasing amounts of data flowing through its cable networks.
But the move may not be enough to keep Comcast, the country’s largest cable company, from being disciplined by federal regulators. It also may not be enough to resolve a complicated debate about how Internet providers can manage their online traffic.
Comcast and BitTorrent, a San Francisco company whose software is used by Web sites, movie studios and cable TV networks to distribute online video, announced Thursday that they were working to solve a dispute that arose last year. An Associated Press report in October claimed that Comcast was blocking some customers from using BitTorrent’s software, causing public-interest groups to complain to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The FCC is looking into whether Comcast violated federal rules that prohibit network providers from discriminating against specific software programs. Supporters of this so-called “network neutrality” said that Comcast and some other Internet providers had an incentive to slow programs such as BitTorrent because online video competes with their TV programming.
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Comcast has denied blocking BitTorrent traffic but has said it slowed the software’s use by some customers. The move was necessary, Comcast said, to keep a few customers who upload large amounts of data from slowing down the Internet for others.
BitTorrent makes it easier to distribute large files by taking pieces of them from the computers of different users instead of downloading whole files from one location.
Comcast promised Thursday that it would change the way it manages its network by the end of the year as it works to double the upload capacity of many customers.
In a joint statement with BitTorrent, Comcast said it would start a “collaborative effort” with the Internet community to address concerns about network congestion as more download movies and TV shows and upload content to sites such as YouTube and Facebook.
BitTorrent praised Comcast’s moves, and both companies said it showed that technical Internet issues could be worked out without “government intervention.” FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said the announcement eliminated the need for “further government intrusion into this matter.”
But the controversy is far from over.
Speaking at a Hollywood technology conference Thursday, BitTorrent President Ashwin Navin said the FCC should continue to look into the issue.
“The FCC needs to do its job,” he said. “What happens here in the U.S. is the template for the rest of the world.”
Commissioner Michael Copps and public-interest groups said Comcast’s response wouldn’t have happened without the threat of FCC action. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he was pleased that Comcast “reversed course” but concerned that it wouldn’t change its practices immediately.
Martin said the FCC will remain “vigilant” to ensure consumers can access any lawful content online. Consumer-rights groups say the FCC should still act to protect consumers against other “discriminatory” network-management practices.
“Any arrangements made now would not cover any future developments in blocking, throttling or filtering that any other companies may use,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge.
Consumer and “Net Neutrality” advocates have accused Comcast of playing gatekeeper by secretly blocking some connections between file-sharing computers. They also accused Comcast of stifling delivery of Internet video, an emerging competitor to its core business.
Material from Los Angeles Times reporter Joseph Menn and The Associated Press was used in this article.