Kevin Martin added another brick to his legacy today, with the FCC's ruling against Comcast in the net neutrality dispute. And I use "brick" in the basketball sense, as in a comically misguided shot on goal.Briefly, the FCC approved an enforcement order against Comcast, requiring the company to stop blocking and delaying Internet traffic and to publicly disclose its traffic-management policies.
The free-the-Web crowd, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Free Press, treated this, predictably, as a major victory for the common man: "Everyday people have taken on a major corporation and won an historic precedent for an open Internet," crowed Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press.
I seldom agree with the editorial writers of The Wall Street Journal, but I'll make an exception here: under Martin's guidance, the FCC "would prohibit Internet service providers from using price to address the ever-growing popularity of streaming video and other bandwidth-intensive programs that cause bottlenecks."
The ruling ignores the fact that Comcast has already reached an agreement with its chief antagonist in this quarrel, BitTorrent, to seek a common solution to bandwidth-sucking peer-to-peer file sharing applications that are thought to use up more than half of all Internet traffic. It also misses the inconvenient fact that AT&T, one of Comcast's primary ISP rivals, already is testing a "tiered pricing" model that would charge big users of P2P downloading applications more based on their bandwidth consumption. That sounds to me like the free market at work.
Like a toddler pushing a puppy in the direction it's already moving, the FCC is just duplicating processes that the market already has set in motion: Sena Fitzmaurice, senior director of corporate communications and government affairs for Comcast, pointed out that the deadline established in the order is the same self-imposed deadline that Comcast announced four months ago.
It must be said that, by acting reflexively with all the arrogance of a Big Corporation, Comcast has dug its own hole. The company has consistently fudged its real management practices, denying what many analysts and journalists have been able to prove easily enough: the cable company has specifically targeted BitTorrent users and downgraded their connections, not just at "peak congestion times" but 24/7.
That's very different from simply charging more for high bandwidth consumption, which is the way capitalism works. As I wrote a few months back, "the airlines are greedy and mendacious, too, but no one complains about them charging more for first class."
Until bandwidth becomes an unlimited resource -- which, even with planned network upgrades touted again today by Comcast executives, is not likely in the foreseeable future -- some form of tiered pricing, or "protocol-agnostic network management" in the preferred Comcast phrase, is inevitable. Redundant rulings like today are not going to change that.