Big victory for a geek lawyer Young attorney takes on Comcast and wins.

Posted: July 31, 2008

WASHINGTON — Marvin Ammori is a geek. He's a 30-year-old public-interest lawyer who pedals a bicycle to work and shares an office with a coworker.

He says his last girlfriend dropped him after complaining he worked too many hours, talked regularly to his mother in Detroit, and dreamed of an academic career in telecom law in Nebraska.

But don't be fooled by this nerdy veneer.

Ammori, the general counsel for the left-leaning and relatively obscure advocacy group Free Press, is scoring a big win with the FCC's expected decision tomorrow to punish cable giant Comcast Corp. for blocking Internet traffic.

"I'd be lying if I said I expected all this," Ammori said, basking in his probable victory. "We expected Comcast to back down and stop, and they didn't."

The FCC order still has to be released to the public and voted on. But it is expected that the FCC, for the first time, will establish enforceable rules for how Comcast and other broadband companies can treat the Internet.

The agency is calling the order a precedent-setting move that will provide some consumer protections. The agency's five commissioners are expected to vote on it tomorrow at the agency headquarters in Washington.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, has found allies in Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, who reportedly intend to vote for the punishment order.

Republican Commissioners Robert M. McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate are expected to oppose Martin's order. Comcast and FCC have held talks to settle the dispute. Most expect Comcast to appeal to the courts if the order passes.

Comcast has criticized the action as unnecessary regulation and, essentially, a witch hunt.

One of the company's political allies calls it "a setup of the first order." Scott Cleland, chairman of Netcompetition.org, a group financed by Comcast and other broadband companies, said Free Press targeted Comcast because of poisoned relations between the Philadelphia company and the FCC's Martin.

"They knew they could get three votes if they isolated Comcast," Cleland said. "They have been clever and premeditated and focused on creating an incident and precedent. They have been very purposeful."

Cleland calls Free Press a "fringe movement" that would like to see Comcast "regulated like a monopoly" and, indeed, it seemed unthinkable three or four months ago that the Republican-controlled FCC would act on the group's complaint.

FCC spokeswoman Edie Herman said she did not understand the reference to poisoned relations between Martin and Comcast. She said Martin repeatedly had commented that the main issue was consumer protection and access to the Internet.

The issue at hand involves Comcast customers who use its network to transmit enormous data files - full-length movies, for example - over the Internet. Comcast interrupts these "Internet hogs," but not, the company says, for the anticompetitive reasons that Free Press and other critics say.

If people are downloading or uploading massive amounts of data, the Internet slows because of data jams. High online speeds are a goal for all Comcast customers, and the company had to interrupt some Internet traffic to ease jams, Comcast says.

In response to the criticism, Comcast says it will change how it manages its huge Internet network and give customers more information about its practices.

"We continue to assert that our network-management practices were reasonable, wholly consistent with industry practices and that we did not block access to Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services. We do not believe the record supports any other conclusion," Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said in a statement.

On Monday, Ammori hurriedly wolfed down a roast beef sandwich at his desk in an eighth-floor office in the headquarters of the Communications Workers of America. Free Press rents space from the union.

He is a lanky guy, and today he is dressed in blue shirt with no tie and black slacks. He has thinning black hair, slouches in his chair, and speaks in a rapid-fire fashion. He said he attended Catholic school as a child and thinks some of his lessons from then led him to public-interest assignments.

Ammori, who was raised in Detroit and attended law school at Harvard University, talks about "the movement" - or the media-reform movement - and how important it will be to preserve the integrity of the Internet for independent voices.

He joined Free Press last summer after working for two years as a staff lawyer and fellow for the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center. He expects to leave Free Press later this year for a professorship at the University of Nebraska Law School in Lincoln.

Free Press was formed in 2003 to oppose relaxed media-ownership rules, and it has expanded in recent years into "net neutrality." Net neutrality is the concept that corporations or others should not interfere with Internet traffic.

Based in Massachusetts, Free Press has a $5.5 million budget and 37 staffers. It spreads its message through a 500,000-person e-mail list, videos on YouTube, and on Facebook.

Ammori said Comcast should not have "the same control over the Internet that it has over its own TV system." He rejects the assertion that he was exploiting the purported bad feelings between Martin and Comcast.

He said the cable giant helped his case by being stubborn. AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. retreated when confronted with incidents of interfering on the Internet, he said. Comcast did not.

Ammori had some help from other organizations, such as the Media Access Project. But, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive officer of Media Access, "this was Marvin's show."

Schwartzman said Comcast had "an army of lawyers and lobbyists" in the proceeding.

Ammori mainly has himself: "I used to go to the gym three times a week, and I had a personal trainer. By about February I gave that up, and now I rely on the bike and maybe some running."

As for the girlfriend, "It's not a very interesting story."

Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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