No-Shows Called Out at FCC Network-Neutrality Field Hearing

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T Decline Invitations to Stanford University Event

The first part of the Federal Communications Commission's network-neutrality field hearing in California ran long as commissioners delivered lengthy opening statements and panelists talked passionately about the future of the Internet.

That passion was even more understandable given the Stanford University venue, where Google and Yahoo got their starts.

There were no major networks represented at the hearing -- a point FCC chairman Kevin Martin took pains to point out from the get-go. Martin told the assembled panelists and audience that he asked Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T and they declined.

He mentioned Comcast twice, saying the company was asked two weeks ago and again this week after it announced plans to help come up with a peer-to-peer file transfer bill of rights and responsibilities.

FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, who favors the marketplace over net-neutrality mandates, said at least twice that he was disappointed in the network no-shows, adding that he wanted to ask them some tough questions. Comcast, for one, said it already made its case at an earlier hearing and would weigh in again when it had something new.

Those who did appear were mostly critical of Comcast, as its network management of BitTorrent P2P traffic drew FCC complaints from Free Press and others and helped to prompt the hearing.

Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and Free Press board member, argued that the FCC needed to establish a clear network-neutrality policy because the "trust us" approach to networks went against their basic nature, which is to maximize profits for their shareholders, including making technology serve that end.

You don't talk about trusting a company any more than you do trusting a tiger, he said, pointing out that some companies brand the animal as a cuddly creature. A tiger, like a network operator, has a certain nature, he added, and it is not something you trust your child with.

Lessig suggested that Comcast was simply following its nature and that it was the FCC that had failed to set ground rules that would make wed a network's self interest to the public interest. The key, he added, is for the FCC to make it more profitable for them to behave than misbehave.

Independent Film & Television Alliance president Jean Prewitt, representing independent producers, also argued for clearer FCC policies on openness. She said that with traditional media increasingly closed to independent programmers, the Internet represented the last, best hope for getting a platform for independent content.

“We must not allow a small group of companies to engineer the Internet by reference only to their own financial interests,” she added. “The interests of the public and other participants in the competitive marketplace must be addressed. There must be transparency, equal treatment and a method of redress when the providers’ private decisions impair fair rights of others and the public interest.”