The FCC examines Comcast's traffic-blocking plan

Will the broadband company face a stiff fine for interrupting customers' file-trading sessions?

By Farhad Manjoo

Published January 9, 2008 5:12PM (EST)

Late last year, in a blockbuster bit of investigation, the Associated Press discovered that Comcast was running software on its network that actively blocks its customers' peer-to-peer file-trading applications (even when what they're trading is perfectly legal -- like, in the AP's test case, the Bible).

Comcast had long denied it was giving people anything other than "unlimited" access to the Internet; after the AP's incontrovertible proof, it sheepishly admitted that it was "delaying" some Internet traffic in order to manage its network effectively.

The explanation rang hollow with consumer advocacy groups, who have been pressuring Congress to mandate that Internet providers treat all traffic on their lines equally -- i.e., they want lawmakers to impose "network neutrality" rules on providers. In November, a number of groups asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Comcast's traffic-blocking scheme and to fine the company $195,000 for each affected customer.

Looks like they're getting somewhere: Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show on Tuesday, FCC Chairmain Kevin Martin said the agency would investigate.

As the AP found, Comcast's traffic-blocking plan appears to use a system made by a firm called Sandvine. When two computers are trading bits of a file through a peer-to-peer application like BitTorrent, Sandvine interrupts the session by sending a message to each machine that looks like it came from the other machine; the message tells each computer that the other is unavailable, ending the trading session.

In other words, Comcast actively monitors your Internet line and, even worse, masquerades as a legitimate party on the other end. If a phone company did this on your voice line -- pretending to be your mother telling you she didn't want to talk to you -- you wouldn't stand for it. We shouldn't have to stand for it online, either.

The consumer groups allege that Comcast's plan violates the FCC's broadband policies. These policies, Martin says, allows providers to take "reasonable" measures to make sure traffic flows smoothly along their lines. Comcast says its plan is reasonable.

Martin says that the FCC will find out. "The question is going to arise: Are they reasonable network practices?" he told the audience at the CES show. "When they have reasonable network practices, they should disclose those and make those public."

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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