Please ignore the net neutrality sideshow haunting Comcast's BitTorrent bust

Lies, damn lies, and corporate PR


Comment According to narrow-minded ideologues on both sides of the increasingly childish debate over net neutrality, Comcast's infamous BitTorrent throttling is all about, well, net neutrality. But it's not. It's about Comcast lying to its consumers, the press, the FCC, and everyone else with even a passing interest in getting what they pay for.

In November, after The Associated Press confirmed reports that the big-name American ISP was blocking certain peer-to-peer file sharing traffic, two net-neutrality-loving watchdogs - Free Press and Public Knowledge - went running to the FCC. Soon, Pro Net Neuts and Anti Net Neuts the world over were bickering like Hatfields and McCoys, each ignoring any facts that might conflict with their particular version of the truth. The Pro camp said that ISPs can't discriminate against individual applications. And the Anti camp said that sometimes discrimination is the best way to avoid some serious network congestion.

This farcical squabble even extended to the FCC itself, with fellow commissioners making a right mess of government policy by issuing an order that some of them didn't have time to read.

After a split vote, the FCC officially censured Comcast, saying the big-name ISP ran afoul of "federal policies that protect the vibrant and open nature of the internet." The Pro Net Neuts are pleased. And the Anti Net Neuts are peeved. But in the epic tale of Comcast and its BitTorrent choke hold, net neutrality is a red herring.

Whether you believe in a neutral net or not, the company broke the law. And even if the FCC has erred in rejecting Comcast's claims to reasonable network management, the commission has given the ISP just the punishment it deserves.

Topolski with a side of interstate fraud

Independent networking guru Robb Topolski first noticed Comcast's BitTorrent throttling in early 2007, and when word of his P2P tests first hit the tech press that August, Comcast flatly denied the practice. Then, when the FCC came calling, the company admitted to managing peer-to-peer traffic - though it insisted this only occurred "during periods of heavy network traffic."

But after nearly a year of scrutiny - including a pair of public FCC hearings - Comcast finally acknowledged its throttling had nothing to do with periods of heavy network traffic. As Topolski's tests showed, it was blocking BitTorrents round the clock.

"Comcast's current P2P management is triggered when the number of P2P uploads in a given area for a particular P2P protocol reaches a certain, pre-determined level, regardless of the level of overall network traffic at that time, and regardless of the time of day when the applicable P2P protocol threshold is reached," the company said in a recent FCC filing.

Yes, Comcast has a right to manage traffic on its network. But it's also obligated to give customers what they're buying.

"These are issues of consumer fraud," says Jonathan Kramer, a telecoms-savvy attorney with the Los Angeles-based Kramer Telecom Law Firm. "They took money from people and said they were going to deliver something. But in the end, they didn't."

Comcast is already facing multiple class action lawsuits accusing the ISP of "deceiving and misleading" consumers. And that's why, all you Cnet readers, the FCC's punishment has some teeth.

The FCC ordered Comcast to "disclose the details of its network management practices." And that's the last thing the company wants. "If they disclose their practices, they'll basically provide the evidence that proves exactly what those class action suits claim," Kramer says. "And they'll be revealing it in detail. The issue won't be 'Did you screw the people?' It will be 'What damages are we going to extract from you because of it?'"

We may even see a suit from state attorneys general. "They may step in for all the other people affected by this - which could be considered interstate fraud," Kramer continued.

So, yes, Comcast will challenge the FCC's ruling in federal court. But contrary to yet another blinkered Cnet commentary, the FCC will have the upper hand. You can deride the commission's views on network management, but there's no doubt it has the power to sanction. "Congress has delegated its authority to set the rules that regulate interstate telecommunications, and the internet is interstate telecommunications," Kramer explains. "The FCC is simply following the direction Congress gave it in the Telecom Act of 96."

After a long legal battle, the court will uphold the FCC's ruling. The Pro Net Neuts will be pleased. The Anti Net Neuts will be peeved. And they'll continue to bicker about whether the ruling will prevent American ISPs from controlling congestion on their networks. But Comcast will get its comeuppance. ®

Broader topics

Narrower topics


Other stories you might like

  • FTC says Frontier lied about its internet speeds amid $8.5m settlement
    Telco 'ripped off customers by charging high-speed prices for slow service', says watchdog

    The FTC has settled a case in which Frontier Communications was accused of charging high prices for under-delivered internet connectivity.

    The US telecommunications giant has promised to be clearer with subscribers on connection speeds, and will cough up more than $8.5 million, or less than a day in annual profit, to end the matter.

    Frontier used to primarily pipe broadband over phone lines to people in rural areas, expanded to cities, and today supplies the usual fare to homes and businesses: fiber internet, TV, and phone services.

    Continue reading
  • Starlink's Portability mode lets you take your sat broadband dish anywhere*
    * Terms and so many conditions apply

    Starlink customers who've been itching to take their dish on the road can finally do so – for a price. 

    The Musk-owned satellite internet service provider quietly rolled out a feature this week called Portability which, for an additional $25 per month, will allow customers to take their service with them anywhere on the same continent – provided they can find a clear line-of-sight to the sky and the necessary power needed to keep the data flowing.

    That doesn't mean potential Starlink customers sign up for service in an area without a wait list and take their satellite to a more congested area. Sneaky, but you won't get away with it. If Starlink detects a dish isn't at its home address, there's no guarantee of service if there's not enough bandwidth to go around, or there's another outage.

    Continue reading
  • Timetable for industrial action ballot against BT imminent
    CWU deputy secretary demands better pay for staff amid cost-of-living crisis

    The Communication and Workers Union (CWU) will this week publish the timetable to run an industrial action ballot over the pay rise BT gave to members recently, with the telco's subsidiaries to vote separately.

    Earlier this month, BT paid its 58,000 frontline workers a flat rate increase of £1,500 ($1,930) for the year, upping it from the £1,200 ($1,545) initially offered. BT hadn't cleared this increase with the CWU, and the union branded the offer as unacceptable at a time when inflation in Britain is expected to soar by 10 percent this year.

    In a public town hall meeting last week, the CWU said it will take an "emergency motion" to the Annual Conference this week to "set out the exact ballot timetable," said Karen Rose, vice president at CWU.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022