The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States has issued a warning to network operators about placing “arbitrary limits on the way consumers can access information on the internet”. Cable operator Comcast faces accusations of limiting certain peer-to-peer traffic. It could have important consequences for the principle of network neutrality.

Kevin Martin, the chairman of the FCC has recommended action against the largest cable company in the country. Comcast has been accused of limiting traffic associated with filesharing using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol.

Advocates of network neutrality maintain that service providers should not be able to discriminate against users based on the type of traffic. Comcast argues that it is simply managing its network for the benefit of other users.

The FCC chairman is recommending that the five-member commission vote in favour of an order requiring Comcast to disclose its network management practices.

“The internet is based upon the idea that consumers can go anywhere they want and access any content they want,” Kevin Martin told reporters. “When they show they are blocking access to some sort of content, they have the burden to show that what they are doing is reasonable.”

One concern is that cable companies, which are in the business of providing television and telephone services, could inhibit certain traffic that competes with them directly, such as online video or internet telephone services.

The current guidelines, which the FCC has not formally adopted, allow carriers to engage in “reasonable network management”. Network providers observe that the commission has not provided guidance on what this can include.

Comcast has already published some of its network management policies and has entered into agreements with BitTorrent and internet phone company Vonage regarding ways of managing network traffic.

The latest development is unlikely to resolve the network neutrality issue. The membership of the communications commission could change under the next administration, leading to further lobbying on the matter.