Self-Appointed Traffic Cop

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, October 25, 2007

Is the company you pay to bring you the Internet blocking parts of it instead?

That's been a fear of some Internet users for a long time. Now many Comcast customers are anxious after reading the Associated Press report last week that the cable-modem service interferes with the BitTorrent file-sharing program.

The news has put the Philadelphia-based corporation in an awkward spot and brought the network neutrality debate back to life, just when it seemed that the issue was dead in Washington.

"Network neutrality" describes what most Internet service providers say they already do: treat all non-malicious Internet traffic equally.

But some of the largest telecom companies, such as AT&T, have said they'd like to charge some Internet sites more for faster delivery of their content. They propose the Internet equivalent of building toll lanes alongside a busy freeway, then inviting some drivers to pay more for that faster access.

Regulators responded by requiring a few newly-merged telecoms, such as AT&T, to follow network-neutrality rules. Public pressure has kept other companies from changing the terms of their broadband services. Most mobile-phone carriers forbid receiving streaming audio or video feeds not provided by the companies.

Comcast isn't accused of quite the same thing. The AP found that its attempts to download files using BitTorrent were delayed or blocked at two of three locations because Comcast's computers generated forged data. That confused the BitTorrent software into closing file-sharing sessions prematurely.

Instead of charging extra for a faster lane, Comcast's conduct amounted to putting up phony exit signs to coax some vehicles off the road.

Comcast initially offered only vague responses about its duty to manage its network traffic, but is now providing more information. An article on its Web site says that it uses "network management technologies that, when necessary, enable us to delay P2P [peer-to-peer file sharing] traffic during periods of heavy congestion."

Mitch Bowling, Comcast's senior vice president and general manager for online services, said the company tried to regulate only file-sharing traffic and had no other way to do so. "That's the only way for us to manage this particular element," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Bowling added that Comcast was not out to impede the sharing of any particular type of file, even copyright-infringing copies of music or movies. "This is absolutely, positively content-agnostic," he said. "We have no desire to know, no need to know."

Comcast would like to be seen as a crossing guard who sometimes must step into a busy intersection to keep pedestrians (customers who just want to get their e-mail) from being mowed down by jerks in speeding SUVs (a few intensive peer-to-peer users).

Should that alone bother anybody? Not necessarily.

By the letter of Comcast's terms of service, file-sharing use isn't allowed in the first place. Its "acceptable usage policy," like those of many providers, bans customers from file sharing.

Not all providers include such a strict prohibition -- and in practice, Comcast is happy to take peer-to-peer users' money. But even the most liberal-minded Internet services include a blanket statement in their terms of use that prohibits conduct obstructing other customers' access.

That's a fundamental contradiction of the Internet-access business: Companies sell unlimited service on the assumption customers won't all take them up on the offer.

Comcast went wrong by trying to keep network-abuse regulations -- and the tools used to enforce them -- secret from its customers.

Comcast could have told users upfront about its "network management." It also could then have notified them when those automated traffic-cop routines kicked in.

This seems to be a common reflex among large telecoms. Comcast, for example, once disconnected users who used too much bandwidth without defining "too much."

Comcast followed the example of Verizon Wireless, which marketed its cellular-data service as "unlimited" but closed the accounts of customers who exceeded a fine-print usage cap. On Tuesday, the company settled a case brought by the New York state attorney general's office, agreeing to reimburse customers it had disconnected for overuse.

Customers ought to have a simple remedy in these cases. When a telecom company has a problem communicating with them, they should take their business elsewhere.

But in many parts of the Washington area and nationwide, Comcast is the only broadband service available. In other areas, some other huge company provides the only high-speed access in town.

The network-neutrality debate will never go away as long as that remains the case -- nor should it.

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