Comcast's web traffic-tampering contested

by PETER SVENSSON, Associated Press

In 1995, the first warning was raised: The throngs of people swarming to the Internet would overwhelm the system in 1996. For more than a decade, that fear has proved untrue.

Until right about now. The growing popularity of video on the Net has driven a traffic increase that is putting strains on service providers, particularly cable companies. To deal with it, they have had to change the way they convey Internet data.

And they've done this in secret, raising concerns — by Web companies, consumer groups and the Federal Communications Commission chairman — that the nature of the Internet is being altered in ways difficult to divine.

But as traffic grows, there are signs that these subtle and secret controls are insufficient and will give way to more overt measures. For instance, we could find ourselves paying not just for the speed of our connection, but also for how much we download. Already, some ISPs are hindering file-sharing traffic, and AT&T Inc. is talking about blocking pirated content.

The issue is coming to a head this year. The FCC is investigating complaints from consumer groups and legal scholars that Comcast Corp., the country's largest cable ISP, secretly hampered file sharing by its subscribers. File sharing, which allows Internet users to download movies, music and software among each other with software such as BitTorrent and KaZaa, has been a haven for piracy, although legal uses are proliferating, as well. By interfering with traffic, the groups said, Comcast is determining what will and won't work, violating the Internet's unwritten tradition of "net neutrality" — the principle that traffic be treated equally.

The FCC has adopted a broad policy that Internet service providers can't block specific applications. But its interpretation of that statement is not clear because it has not had to rule on a similar case. Crucially, the policy makes an exemption for "reasonable traffic management," which Comcast says its practices fall under.

ISPs will closely watch the FCC case because it appears that most of them use some kind of traffic management, slowing less time-sensitive traffic, such as file sharing, to keep Web surfing snappy. Whereas earlier doom scenarios for the Internet mostly concerned the "highways" that move traffic around the country, the choke points that are appearing are actually close to our homes. It's your neighbors that are the problem.

"The increasing use of bandwidth by a minority is an increasingly important issue for all ISPs," Time Warner Cable Inc. spokesman Alex Dudley said.

Time Warner Cable reserves the right to limit the bandwidth available to applications such as file sharing and manage traffic in other ways. But it won't say what it does, for fear that competitors could attack that in their marketing.

Internet service providers and consumer advocates agree that some form of network management, also called "traffic shaping," can be good for everybody. Not all Internet traffic has the same level of urgency. It makes sense for the service providers to give priority to a voice call, which needs a steady stream of quickly delivered data, over a movie download.

This is unusual territory for telecommunications providers — in the old telephone network, some phone calls aren't generally prioritized over others. Prioritization makes the Internet more like the postal system, in which you pay for delivery speed and quality of service.

But the heavy veil of secrecy ISPs lay over their practices makes it very hard to evaluate what they are doing. Arbor Networks said it has 160 customers worldwide for traffic prioritization. It has been able to reveal the names of some overseas clients, but no U.S. customer is willing to be identified.

When users complained to Comcast about file-sharing not working, the company would not acknowledge the problem. Only after an Associated Press investigation brought attention to the issue in October did Comcast disclose that it was temporarily blocking some file-sharing attempts. It updated its online Terms of Service on Jan. 25, without telling customers, to include a statement about how it may limit file-sharing.

It's difficult to have a public discussion without knowing the facts, so Lauren Weinstein, of the nonprofit People for Internet Responsibility, has formed a Network Neutrality Squad to figure out what is happening on the Internet in the U.S.

"It's an open society, and frankly, I don't buy into the premise that you have to have these secret rules ... to protect these networks," Weinstein said.

Weinstein's squad is developing software tools it will distribute free to people who want to test to see what their ISP is doing and collect the data.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has seized on the secrecy issue, as well. "The question is going to arise: Are they reasonable network practices?" Martin told an audience at a technology trade show in January. "When they have reasonable network practices, they should disclose those and make those public."

article originally published at http://www.courant.com/business/hc-shapingtheinternet.artfeb12,0,2015995.story.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey