In the last 24 hours, Comcast has been embroiled in a minor controversy concerning countless subscribers who use Tor, the traffic-anonymizing service designed to hide your Web activity from would-be snoops. According to a report on a Web site known as Deep Dot Web, Comcast has "declared war" on customers who use Tor and is threatening to disconnect their service over a perfectly legitimate activity. Not surprisingly, the accusations have thrown Internet users — many of whom are already predisposed to dislike Comcast — into an uproar.
But don't buy what Deep Dot Web is selling. Comcast is denying the accusations, of course, but the claims are also being rejected by Tor users themselves. Between the unambiguous denunciations coming from Comcast and the thinly-sourced nature of Deep Dot Web's report, it isn't likely that Comcast is doing anything nefarious here.
Citing anonymous sources on a relatively obscure reddit page and at least one complaint shared with Deep Dot Web directly, the report accuses Comcast of telling customers that Tor is an "illegal service" that violates the company's acceptable use policy. Failure to terminate Tor usage, these service reps say, would result in the termination of Comcast service, according to Deep Dot Web.
If you've never used Tor, the service has one basic function: to hide your browsing habits from prying eyes. When using the Tor browser — a specially modified version of Firefox — your traffic doesn't go directly to its destination, but instead gets bounced across multiple intermediaries. When it comes out the other side and continues on, it's almost impossible to tell where (and from whom) the traffic originated. Not even the NSA has figured out how to crack the core Tor infrastructure (as far as we know.)
What Deep Dot Web is implying is that Comcast is monitoring people who use this service and singling them out for special treatment. It's significant not only because these are serious charges, but because it recalls a similar case resolved in 2008 concerning Comcast's throttling of peer-to-peer filesharing services. Back then, the FCC said that Comcast was violating net neutrality by taking action against BitTorrent traffic. Although the incident led an appeals court to rule in Comcast's favor, it kicked off a debate over net neutrality that continues today.
Unlike the BitTorrent case, it doesn't appear that the Comcast actions against Tor are widespread, if they're happening at all. On Monday, the company categorically denied monitoring what users do on its network.
"The report may have generated a lot of clicks, but is totally inaccurate," Comcast exec Jason Livingood wrote in a blog post. "Comcast is not asking customers to stop using Tor, or any other browser for that matter."
Livingood added that he is an occasional Tor user himself.
A Comcast spokesman clarified to The Washington Post that "termination is not a policy… post-BitTorrent, we've been very consistent and clear there's no application or service or any website or protocol that our customers cannot use with their Comcast Internet service."
There are good reasons to be skeptical of Comcast, particularly when the company has itself acknowledged its poor record on customer service. Bashing Comcast is easy and popular, which may be one reason Deep Dot Web's report rose so quickly to the top of reddit Monday morning. (The report is now nowhere to be found on reddit's front page.)
Still, users of Tor themselves quickly dismissed the report in a discussion taking place on an online mailing list.
"Without someone willing to go on the record or more details, I'm going to call bulls**t on this entire blog post," wrote mailing list member Griffin Boyce. "I'm an avid Tor user that runs bridges and hidden services from home. And as a Comcast customer, I've never been contacted for this behavior."
Another user, self-identifying as "Mirimir," chimed in that there was "as yet no evidence" that the allegations against Comcast reflected a change in company policy. "In the worst case, Comcast would be less of a threat to its Tor users than the Great Firewall is to Chinese Tor users," Mirimir wrote, referring to the censorship software that makes certain search results and other content unavailable to Chinese Internet users.
In the United States, the only times when Comcast customers might face action against them is if they've violated copyright law — in which case the government obligates Comcast to notify the customer that they've infringed copyrighted material — or if customers are operating a proxy server for the benefit of the general public. But even in those cases, according to Comcast, service termination is a last resort. Not the first.