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Comcast P2P Critic Launches Class-Action Bid

Comcast faces a federal class-action lawsuit, led by an outspoken critic of the operator’s peer-to-peer management practices, alleging the company cheated customers by surreptitiously “blocking” Internet file transfers.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, Oregon resident Robb Topolski (pictured),has regularly spoken out against Comcast’s efforts to curtail P2P traffic, including at a Federal Communications Commission hearing on providers’ bandwidth-management practices.

The suit was filed July 18 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The court has not certified a class.

The suit asserts Comcast violated unfair trade practices and consumer-protection laws by misrepresenting its broadband service as “unfettered” and that it provides “the fastest Internet connection.”

“Comcast knowingly caused its subscribers to pay for services that they did not receive,” Topolski’s complaint said.

Asked for comment, Comcast director of corporate communications Charlie Douglas said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

In previous statements, Comcast has insisted repeatedly that it “does not block any Internet content, application or service” and that it takes limited measures to manage traffic on its broadband network that fall under the FCC’s “reasonable network management” guidelines for Internet service providers.

Topolski claims to have conducted tests that first identified that Comcast was intentionally disrupting BitTorrent file transfers, which he posted on the discussion site last year.

Since then, Comcast’s approach to managing peer-to-peer traffic has erupted into a political issue for network-neutrality proponents who want to restrict the ways Internet providers can manage their networks. As a result the MSO has pledged to adopt a “protocol-agnostic” technique that would limit bandwidth consumption for only the heaviest-downloading users during times of peak congestion.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin this month circulated a proposal to rule that Comcast violated agency policy by “blocking” consumers from freely using Internet applications.

The Oregon suit defines the class as any U.S. resident who purchased or received high-speed Internet access from Comcast between July 18, 2002, and the forthcoming date of class certification.

The class-action suit seeks refunds for affected Comcast subscribers, plus statutory and punitive damages and other fees.

Topolski, asked via e-mail how much he believes Comcast owes him, replied that the question is “tremendously complicated.”

“This involves more than just Robb Topolski and how he was impacted,” Topolski wrote. “It involves a very large group of people, it spans quite a bit of time on an expensive service, and it involves deception. So the lawyers are going to have to figure out how to explain this to the courts and the process ahead has to decide the amount.”

Topolski is identified in court documents as a networking professional currently serving as “chief technology consultant” for Free Press and Public Knowledge, two public interest groups that have targeted Comcast over the peer-to-peer issue.

While P2P programs like BitTorrent are often used to download pirated music or movies, Topolski's suit said he attempted to use a file-sharing program on Comcast's network to exchange Tin Pan Alley-era songs in the public domain.

The plaintiff’s attorneys are the law firms Gilbert Randolph LLP, SimmonsCooper LLC, and Hanly Conroy Bierstein Sheridan Fisher & Hayes LLP, along with Portland, Ore.-based attorney Kari Hong.

The firms also have filed similar class-action suits against Comcast in three states—California, Illinois and New Jersey—and the District of Columbia, which are pending.

Comcast separately is the target of at least two individual subscriber lawsuits, in California and Washington, D.C., alleging false advertising pertaining to its P2P bandwidth throttling.