The FCC held a hearing February 25th looking into Comcast’s “network management” practices. Although the commission has expressed support for ISPs taking preventive measures to alleviate network congestion, during the hearing the government body indicated it would not put up with ISPs that secretly block or hinder specific types of data or the applications that move the data.

But the FCC isn’t the only one interested in Comcast and Net neutrality. The New York attorney general’s office also wants to know more about Comcast’s methods of relieving Internet traffic jams, and has subpoenaed the ISP for more information.

Comcast found itself in the hot seat last fall when the Associated Press reported the company was intentionally blocking peer-to-peer file transfers when both sender and receiver were Comcast subscribers. After AP reported its findings Comcast responded by saying it was only doing so to prevent congestion on its networks.

Comcast’s original response only raised more questions. Basically, an ISP is a conduit or portal to the Internet, and if an ISP limits or excludes certain Internet functions, like e-mail, downloading, or newsgroups, it must let its subscribers know about the specific limitations. That Comcast decided to secretly hinder certain Internet activities, in this case file-sharing without telling its subscribers has resulted in questions from consumer advocates, law professors and now the FCC about the company’s Internet service.

It all goes back to Net neutrality, the concept that all data should be treated equally by ISPs. Under Net neutrality, ISPs aren’t supposed to block, hinder, or for that matter, favor any particular data over another. Whether it’s P2P transfers, YouTube videos, iTunes purchases or e-mail, all data is equal under Net neutrality.

The entertainment industry is also curious about Comcast interfering with P2P transfers. Several companies are now using, or plan to use, P2P networks to deliver licensed content, such as movies and TV shows.

At the hearing, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said the commission was ready to discipline ISPs that secretly favored specific kinds of data over others.

“The commission is ready, willing and able to step in if necessary to correct any practices that are ongoing today,” Martin said during opening statements at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the location of the hearing.

However, Martin indicated that the commission wasn’t exactly against Comcast’s network management practices. Instead, the commission has a problem with blocking certain kinds of data without disclosing those practices to its customers.

“Consumers need to know if and how network management practices distinguish between different applications, so they can configure their own applications and systems properly,” Martin said.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen told the commission his company interrupts file-sharing in neighborhoods when P2P transfers result in enough congestion that other Internet activities take performance hits, and that his company had chosen the “least intrusive method” to help the “vast majority” of its customers “avoid service degradation.”

“There is nothing wrong with network management – every broadband network is managed,” Cohen said. “Our customers want us to fight spam and viruses, and they want us to fight congestion.”

Another ISP was also at the hearing, but Verizon Communications said its network management techniques differed from Comcast’s mainly because its network architecture is configured differently, making methods like blocking certain kinds of data or applications unnecessary.

That ISPs might discriminate between different types of data is a bigger issue than just somebody not getting their P2P download. Legitimate content providers could experience problems delivering their wares to customers. Then there’s the money angle.

For example, companies specializing in delivering content by way of the Internet may have problems attracting investors if ISPs use network management methods that result in content being blocked.

Then there’s the Net neutrality concept itself, that legitimate content and applications should not be blocked by anyone for any reason.

“Whatever we think reasonable network management is, it should not include blocking lawful applications,” said Timothy Wu, the Columbia Law School professor attributed with coining Net neutrality phrase. “It should not include discrimination against applications and blocking of lawful applications.”

Aside from trying to eliminate network congestion by blocking P2P transfers, Comcast might want to look for other ways to eliminate virtual traffic jams. Many major players in the music industry have expressed the opinion that ISPs aren’t doing enough to combat music and movie piracy. Furthermore, several music biz heavyweights have called for ISPs to actively patrol their networks for copyright violations, saying Internet providers have turned a blind eye to the entertainment industry’s piracy problems.

In response, ISPs have pointed out that they are merely conduits and are not responsible for what their customers do on the Net. Plus, those same ISPs have said it’s just not possible to focus so much time, effort and manpower to prevent copyright piracy.

But if an ISP can effectively block a P2P transfer as Comcast has done, then the music industry might argue that it shouldn’t be all that difficult for ISPs to block or prevent copyright infringing actions as well.

So, if Comcast and other ISPs don’t want to become copyright cops, they might want to take another look at their “network management” methods.

Comcast’s Chair Management

While the FCC and Comcast discussed the finer points of “network management” it now looks as if the ISP was responsible for another controversial corporate decision: Hiring people to fill up the audience at the FCC hearing.

Apparently Comcast became so concerned about who sat in the audience during the hearing at Harvard Law School that it hired its own gawkers to sit and watch the proceedings.

The ISP claimed it hired seat-warmers to reserve seats for its own employees who were scheduled to arrive later in the day. The company says it did this because it was concerned that one of the advocacy groups complaining about the company’s network practices – Free Press – had urged members of the public to attend the hearing.

But an administrative manager at Harvard’s Berkman Center For Internet and Society said most of the three dozen or so seat-warmers remained through most of the event, causing the school to turn others away.

“First, Comcast was caught blocking the Internet. Now it has been caught blocking the public from the debate,” said Timothy Karr, director of an advocacy campaign backed by a coalition of groups, including Free Press. “The only people cheering Comcast are those paid to do so.”