The U.S. Federal Communications Commission was on the Harvard Law School campus today to hear testimony about whether or not Internet service providers deliberately blocked users from sharing files online. In a packed Ames Courtroom, the five commissioners heard from representatives of Comcast and Verizon about their network management practices, as well as from academics and small business owners who urged more freedom on the Internet.

“It is critical that the commission remain vigilant in protecting consumers’ access to content on the Internet,” said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin ’93 in his opening remarks. “The commission is ready, willing, and able to step in, if necessary, and correct any (unreasonable) practices that are ongoing today.”

Martin emphasized the rights of the consumer, calling upon service providers to be more open about policies that might interfere with an Internet user’s ability to access legal content online. He said the goal of the hearing was to determine which network management policies are reasonable.

Testimony began with a series of remarks from panelists, including HLS Professor Yochai Benkler ’94. “The Internet is about people connecting to each other…to create together and to organize, to transact, and to tell each other stories about who we are,” he said.

Benkler added that the Internet is the primary source for modern innovation, and he urged complete and open access. Competition is a key element in achieving a better broadband infrastructure that expands access, he said.

David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corporation, responded to charges that his company has blocked content by explaining why Comcast does not allow some users to upload files during heavy periods of network activity.

“Use of the network is not permitted that would degrade the experience of other users on the network,” Cohen explained. “Don’t let the rhetoric of some of the critics scare you: there is nothing wrong with network management.”

Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, was also on hand. A key player in the “net neutrality” movement for more openness of the Internet, he has introduced legislation that will be considered by Congress next week.

“The internet is as much mine and yours, as it is Verizon’s, AT&T’s, or Comcast’s,” Markey said at the hearing.

Markey is partially responsible for bringing the FCC to Cambridge — he has urged the commission to hold a series of hearings across the U.S. As part of the event, officials from the FCC were on hand to record the testimony of consumers who had opinions about the policies of their Internet service providers.

For more information about the hearing and to read the testimonies of all the panelists who took part in the hearing, visit the FCC’s website.