Comcast-BitTorrent: A Triumph for Regulation?

by on March 28, 2008 · 10 comments

Was yesterday’s groundbreaking deal between BitTorrent and Comcast on network management a triumph for regulation? That’s the storyline being widely peddled in the wake of yesterday’s announcement that the two would work together to solve network management problems.

At first, it looked like the announcement might signal an end to FCC involvement in the dispute.. That, at least, was the view of the sensible – but all too lonely – Commissioner Robert McDowell of the FCC. “[I]t is”, he said, “precisely this kind of private sector solution that has been the bedrock of Internet governance since its inception.”

But that prospect soon foundered. Chairman Kevin Martin, in fact, took the opportunity to articulate his strongest-yet call for FCC regulatory action.

But was the agreement itself a triumph of regulation? Quite a few are saying yes. Marvin Ammori of Free Press, for instance, declared that that it was “the direct result of public pressure — and the threat of FCC action — against Comcast”. Even our own Hance Haney, in his excellent summary of the issue yesterday, seemed to credit the agreement to the threat of regulation.

There’s no doubt that the threat of regulation can spur action. But in this case, it turns out that action was well underway before the issue went before the FCC. In an interview with CNET’s Marguerite Reardon over a week ago, BitTorrent CEO Doug Walker stated that BitTorrent was working with Comcast’s CTO on a solution to their network problems “long before this story broke.”

It’s impossible to say that a deal would have been reached without the threat of regulation. Walker seemed skeptical of regulation, though. Asked whether the FCC should take action, he said “there should be less lawyering, quite frankly”. (He did predict that public opinion would play a role.)

The Walker interview indicates that even before the regulators got involved, the two firms saw it in their interest to work out their problems. Is it possible that Commissioner McDowell is – once again – correct, and markets do work after all?

Previous post:

Next post: