FCC Chair Slaps Comcast Wrist

Wire services report that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said yesterday that Comcast “violated our principles” on Internet access by blocking or slowing access to data by users of certain file sharing programs. The FCC policy is to guarantee open access to Internet data. If two more of the five-member commission agree with Martin, then Comcast could be in line to receive some hefty penalties.

For its part, Comcast defends its actions as simply balancing loads — not blocking access — so that all its customers could have equal quality of service. If certain customers routinely engage in sending or receiving enormous quantities of data, then there is the possibility that this could degrade network performance for some other subscribers.

So why do we care about this at all on an HDTV site? The answer is simple; I believe that we’re headed into a future where we will receive much — if not most — of our information and entertainment over the Internet. If the Internet providers are allowed to decide which sites we’re allowed to access at full speed, and which ones they can slow down, that could have an enormous impact on future services. For example, you may think that this practice is acceptable when applied to sharing sites that may be used for accessing illegal copies of copyrighted content, but what if a Internet provider like Comcast decides to block or slow access to legitimate movie download sites like Netflix or Blockbuster? Clearly, these services will compete with Comcast’s cable video business. Should Comcast be allowed to control access to these competing services?

Personally, I think that they should not have the right to do this, any more than the phone companies should be able to decide that too many people are calling to vote on American Idol. While I applaud the FCC’s position on this subject, I also think that the market is a stronger force and is likely to resolve this matter on its own. Now that many communities have multiple choices for broadband Internet access, consumers will be able to vote with their dollars if their Internet provider starts restricting service in ways that they don’t want. Just as copy protection is rapidly disappearing from the MP3 download business, I expect that limiting access for certain Internet sites is a practice that won’t last long.