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Comcast rebuked by FCC

Times Staff Writer

Federal regulators issued a warning to all Internet service providers Friday with a sharp rebuke of Comcast Corp. for blocking some customers from using file-sharing technology.

By a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission found that the cable company failed to tell its subscribers about the blocking, lied about it when confronted by the commission and tried to cripple online video sites that compete with its on-demand service.

Supporters said the FCC decision would set a landmark precedent in the battle over whether Internet service providers can give priority to certain types of traffic, an issue known as network neutrality.

But its long-term effect depends largely on who sits in the White House next year. Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is a strong supporter of enacting net neutrality rules. His likely Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain, opposes them.

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The FCC ordered Comcast to stop the blocking and provide details about its Internet practices, but declined to fine the Philadelphia-based Internet service provider, the nation’s second-largest.

“The commission will remain vigilant in protecting consumers’ access to content on the Internet,” said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican who voted with the commission’s two Democrats. Comcast denied any wrongdoing and said it was considering a court challenge.

The network neutrality debate has raged online since 2006 and spilled into the presidential campaign.

Public interest groups, online activists and large Internet companies fear that cable and phone companies will start charging websites for faster delivery of their content or block access to sites that offer competing services.

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Internet providers argue that they need to manage traffic on their networks and warn that new government regulation could discourage them from expanding services.

On Friday, the FCC decided not to adopt new rules to prohibit Internet providers from discriminating against content flowing through their networks, as Democratic commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein have advocated.

Instead, at Martin’s urging, the FCC opted to deal with the issue case by case, based on principles it adopted in 2005 that include the right to access any lawful online application. That means that how the agency handles incidents could change next year, when the next president most likely will appoint a new chairman.

“A clearly stated commitment of nondiscrimination would make clear that the commission is not having a one-night stand with net neutrality, but an affair of the heart and a commitment for life,” Copps said.

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Martin is at odds with many Republicans on the issue, including fellow commissioners Robert M. McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned Martin in a letter Thursday not to interfere with how companies manage their networks.

On Friday, a top Bush administration official questioned the Comcast decision.

“I’m concerned about anything that would appear to reverse the decade-old, bipartisan commitment we have against government regulation of the Internet,” said Meredith A. Baker, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Martin said he had heard no objections from the Bush administration and described the FCC’s action as “cautious,” partly because it did not enact new network neutrality rules.

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Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group that helped file the Comcast complaint, said McCain, if elected, probably would appoint a chairman opposed to taking action against Internet service providers for network management.

McDowell said, “Asking our government to make these decisions will mean that every two to four years the ground rules could change depending on election results.”

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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