The impact of court's ruling for Comcast

Cecilia Kang


Kai Ryssdal: The case at issue in the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today was Comcast vs. Federal Communications Commission. Hereinafter known as FCC.

Two years ago the FCC said Comcast, which is a big Internet service provider, wasn't allowed to block some of its customers who'd been using BitTorrent. That's a file swapping service usually used to download really big files, like movies. Files that take up a whole lot of Comcast bandwidth.

Comcast said, "OK, we'll stop." Then it sued. In its ruling today the court came down with Comcast and against the FCC's stated policy of Internet neutrality.

Cecilia Kang covers technology for the Washington Post. Cecilia, welcome to the program.

Cecilia Kang: Thanks for having me, Kai.

RYSSDAL: We probably ought to back up just a sec, and remind people what we're talking about here. This thing called net neutrality. Help us out.

KANG: It's sort of a horrible word, but it's come to mean a lot in Washington. Net neutrality is sort of a concept. It's this idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. And how that's distilled into real world terms as a consumer, it means that if you're a subscriber of Verizon or Comcast, the quality of the delivery of, say, the Web site Hulu, videos on Hulu, should be treated the exact same as, say, Video on Demand by Comcast. Other applications like Skype should be allowed on your cell phone without a carrier saying yes or no as to whether that should happen. All bits should be treated equally is sort of the idea behind it.

RYSSDAL: And then the ruling today, what did the courts say?

KANG: The courts said that the FCC actually didn't have the authority, didn't have the power to rule against Comcast in 2008 for blocking BitTorrent, an application over the Web. And that ruling may be narrowly focused between Comcast and the FCC. But it really opened sort of a Pandora's Box of lots of other questions as to whether the FCC has the ability to regulate Internet services at all.

RYSSDAL: In terms of how this might play out for consumers now, though, could we conceivably, if we wanted to go to Hulu and watch a butch of videos, could Comcast now say to us, "You have to pay more if you want to watch that 'cause it takes more data, more bits."

KANG: So technically they could. That's what a lot of consumer groups and some analysts are saying is that a service provider could decide to block or slow down an application. In reality that would be awfully difficult. Mostly because consumers would be outraged if they found that, say, their Hulu service was disrupted or YouTube was shut down because those videos compete with Comcast video services. So it would be very difficult for an ISP to do that, and the ISPs would argue that it's not in their business interest to do so.

RYSSDAL: Just to put this into context a little bit, let's think back a couple of weeks. The FCC came out with this huge national broadband plan. I mean the FCC has big Internet plans.

KANG: It's this crazy juxtaposition right now, where the FCC is 100 percent geared towards bringing the agency, bringing the country into this Internet era and really looking at rules and frameworks that would help bring broadband access to 100 million homes, for example, in a decade. This is all happening while this court decision is putting any sort of plans that the FCC might have going forward into real flux.

RYSSDAL: Might the Internet service providers just say, "Listen, let's let the markets sort this out. We're not going to do anything bad for consumers. But hey, let's see what market forces bring to bear here in the wild, wild west of the Internet."

KANG: To a large extent that is what they're saying. In fact, Verizon and AT&T have said as recently as two weeks ago that maybe the FCC really shouldn't be regulating Internet service providers and that maybe the government should have much more of an arm's length on these issues because the Internet is so fast moving, and regulations could be so cumbersome and the Internet economy creates jobs and at a time when we really need jobs producing companies to do well. So they've been arguing that quite a bit, but consumer protection groups would say if you don't have sort of a cop on the beat, you could have service providers really running amok and making decisions such as blocking or degrading other applications that compete against theirs for their business advantage.

RYSSDAL: Cecilia Kang. She's a technology writer for the Washington Post. Cecilia, thanks so much.

KANG: Thank you.

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So Comcast sells internet phone services. What is to prevent them from crippling the other VIOP competitors. Then you have comcast's video-on-demand. LuLu is a competitor. Will comcast "play fair". What is their track record.

It seems that rather large forces, Google, Microsoft, Apple to name a few, are on the other side of this issue from the ISP providers, and they are equally well funded. Certainly Google wants to keep Net Neutrality and not be subject to the whims of Comcast and Verizon. Are we headed for a shootout at the O-K Corral?

@Brett Glass: I don't really see your point about Ms. Kang's blog and Google's corporate interest...after all, Google's not currently an ISP. You could argue that she has an inherent conflict of interest by her blog being on the internet, but hey, what isn't these days?

Also, before people get too excited: what the court ruled was that, since the FCC had never been given authority to regulate this sort of thing by Congress, it didn't have ancillary jurisdiction over this...maybe a bad thing in the short term, but even the EFF notes that that's probably good for keeping unelected bureaucrats from arbitrarily giving themselves power over the internet in the long term. This isn't a sweeping rejection of net neutrality, it's just a lack of jurisdiction.

"The commentator said that "ISPs would argue that it's not in their business interest to" alter traffic flows." See the word ARGUE? The commentator said ARGUE. Of course its a lie, that's what the commentator said as well. The commentator didn't say "it isn't in the business interest," the commentator said "the companies would ARGUE it isn't." Please read ALL the words before posting.

Apparently Jesse cant read, since s/he repeated what was said (in a different way) while arguing against it.

Comcast is a crap company, so is Apple, which the commenter eluded to. The whole idea is everything is equal on the net, nobody gets to pick and choose who gets special treatment. Comcast is picking and choosing which customers get the best connection by limiting others. Apple is restricting applications because they are picking and choosing which customers get to have applications sold. Its the same thing. The internet has way to many laws imposed on it already, we don't need anymore. The FCC should not regulate the internet, but Comcast should not limit the internet either.

The court made a mistake. It will be overturned. Comcast will not play fair.

The commentator said that "ISPs would argue that it's not in their business interest to" alter traffic flows.

That is a complete lie. It is in fact in there business interest to alter traffic flows. They call them peer-to-peer agreements.

Peer-to-peer agreements, in fact, allow two similar ISPs to exchange traffic. Cutting off traffic is no different. They have done it. They do do it. and They will continue to do it until they get called on it.

I have personal experience as such.

The commentator said that "ISPs would argue that it's not in their business interest to" alter traffic flows.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a profit-driven corporation wouldn't pour tons of money into a protracted legal battle just to prove a point. They obviously see traffic shaping as their business interest.

The thing is, though, that since ISPs are no longer regulated monopolies, the government shouldn't be able to interfere. What the FCC wanted was like telling a newspaper it couldn't charge more on a newsstand than for home delivery--or, more insidiously, that a newspaper has to print every crackpot political theory the local university comes up with if it wants to have an editorial page at all. The government should have the power to keep fair competition going and to enforce contracts with consumers and suppliers, but that's just about it.

I'm not sure where Ms. Kang lives, but the given that ISPs such as Comcast have been found to throttle content supposedly to prevent some users from 'hogging' bandwidth, I find it hard to discount the possibility that they might do it for other reasons. As Kal Kolberg correctly points out the ability for any particular ISP customer to detect such throttling is difficult.

It's like dialing a wrong number - did you dial it wrong or did the system make a mistake? You can't tell, just as you never know in any particular situation whether a site is performing poorly or your internet connection is slow.

Also, 'leaving it to the market' is a phrase that should be banned from any commentary given the recent happenings in the market; however, even more so in this situation as there is often only one or two real choices for high-speed internet available to a consumer. So, even if they think there is some throttling - what can they do - market-wise? stop using the internet?

All in all, some consumer-oriented entity needs to monitor/regulate these Internet SERVICE PROVIDERS. The FCC seems to have been doing (or trying to do) a reasonable job and hopefully it or Congress will rectify this misguided decision.

The statement that an ISP wouldn't block access to a website because their customers would get upset is misleading.

Perhaps if the website is well known this might be true. After all blocking Google would probably be noticed fairly quickly.

The problem is what about lesser sites. Sites with few users or none on that particular network. What customer is going to raise a cry against blocking such a site. Especially since there isn't a list about what sites are not available. The problem of course is that without viewers no website will grow. After all Google was once a start-up. What if Comcast had blocked all traffic to Google when it was first starting up because Microsoft had paid them to be the exclusive search engine provider. If customers don't know that there are alternatives why would they complain.

Keep in mind that the problem here isn't just the blocking of a website or technology, but also giving a higher priority to some over others. For instance, if Comcast slows Skype/Vonage and gives priority to their own VOIP technology, this is a real problem. Another example, Comcast offers video on demand services, what happens when they slow Netflick's video over internet services to the point where the video is unwatchable.


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