Comcast settles file-sharing lawsuit
Claim forms must be postmarked by August.
Comcast has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit accusing the wireless provider of blocking access to peer-to-peer Web sites.
The agreement brings an end to two years of litigation that sparked heated debate over whether Internet providers should be allowed to filter content, and how much filtering they can get away with.
Lead plaintiff Jon Hart filed the lawsuit in November 2007, citing Comcast's apparent practice of using software to block peer-to-peer connections. Hart's complaint accused Comcast of sending "hidden messages to computers that are running file sharing applications, [which] appear to the computer as coming from the other computers with which it is sharing files, telling it to stop communicating."
At the time of Hart's filing, Comcast issued an adamant but vaguely worded statement denying the allegations. While Comcast insisted that the company "does not, has not, and will not block any Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services," it reserved its right to "use the latest technologies to manage our network so that [subscribers] can continue to enjoy these applications."
Peer-to-peer networks are those operating directly between users, as opposed to networks that emanate from a central server. Peer-to-peer systems gained influence early in the decade through Web sites like Napster, a music file-sharing site that allowed users to share MP3 files with one another. Although Napster was eventually shut down by court order, it fueled the rise of similar peer-to-peer file-sharing networks at the expense of more traditional, centralized systems.
Hart's suit came after months of speculation over Comcast's practices regarding peer-to-peer networks. In October 2007, the company admitted to delaying some peer-to-peer network connections, saying that such transactions used excessive bandwidth and were therefore disruptive to the entire network. Before that, The Associated Press tested Comcast's peer-to-peer capability and found that many transfers were blocked outright.
Comcast's practices have also drawn fire from network neutrality advocates, who said the company was preventing its users from viewing large swaths of online material. Markham C. Erickson, an attorney and executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, said in 2007 that Comcast's policies highlighted the "ability of broadband providers to make unilateral, non-transparent decisions about what consumers can send and receive over the Internet."
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The settlement covers current or former Comcast subscribers, who used or attempted to use peer-to-peer sites Ares, BitTorrent, eDonkey, FastTrack, or Gnutella between April 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2008, or Lotus Notes between March 26, 2007, and Oct. 3, 2007.
Those who believe they are eligible to recover have plenty of time. Claim forms must be postmarked by Aug. 14, 2010. Those who wish to opt out of or object to the settlement must postmark their request by May 13, 2010. Additional details are available at the official settlement Web site.
Related reading at ConsumerAffairs.com:
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