Comcast into the fires of hell

Comcast tactics similar to those used by China to censor Net traffics.

It seems Comcast has been caught playing with its subscribers' naughty bits. In the latest scandal to spread like kudzu across the blogosphere, Comcast has been accused of killing off Bit Torrent file sharing, according to tests by geeks at the Associated Press.

The AP cleverly took a popular yet entirely public domain work -- The King James Bible -- and tried to transfer it using Bit Torrent. If they connected to Bit Torrent machines using other ISPs, the download worked just fine. Connecting to BT clients on the Comcast network produced a bogus error message, generated by Comcast, that made it look as if the client computer was unavailable. This is apparently one of the techniques the Peoples Republic of China uses to censor Net traffic. (Let's just hope Comcast doesn't own any tanks.)

It's like signing up for a wireless plan without knowing your mobile phone provider is blocking calls to certain area codes. "I'm sorry, the Bit Torrent client you're attempting to reach is out of service; please try your download again." Comcast calls this "traffic shaping" and has apparently been doing it since at least May 07, according to users on BroadbandReports.com. It also affects traffic between Gnutella clients and also Lotus Notes.

If you knew your telecom company was nixing calls to 415 or 212, you'd switch to another one in a heartbeat. But most Comcast subscribers probably don't have a lot of broadband options -- and even if they do, there's no guarantee their new provider won't pull the same stunt. Traffic shaping could be the shape of things to come.

Comcast hasn't copped to anything yet, but the evidence is mounting. (When asked about the alleged BT blocking at the Web 2.0 conference, a Comcast exec delivered a nondenial denial focusing on the tiny percentage of Comcast subscribers who 'abuse' their bandwidth privileges. If that's not a tacit confirmation, then I'm Jessica Simpson.)

The 64 terabit question is, did Comcast do this because it has too little bandwidth to spread among too many subscribers, or did they do it at the behest of the media companies that have tried everything short of The Spanish Inquisition to kill off file sharing? There is no good answer to that one.

Of course, using a file sharing protocol isn't illegal. Fraud, however, is. Whether Comcast defrauded its subscribers by secretly blocking their ability to use certain Internet protocols is something I'd sure like to see argued in court. I'd bet US$50 some class action lawyer is drafting up a claim as I type this.

This is yet another reminder that it's not your computer (it's Microsoft's or Apple's), it's not your music (it belongs to the record companies), and it's not your Internet connection (it's your ISP's). How many more things can THEY get us to pay for and not own?

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld

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