Comcast's Internet 'Throttling' Exposes Tip of the Iceberg

That cable giant Comcast is throttling the free flowing Internet is no surprise to many industry watchers who have warned repeatedly that network owners are building content discrimination into their business models.

Sooner or later one of them was going to get caught. Indeed, Associated Press' recent Comcast exposé reveals just the tip of the iceberg. Comcast isn't the only company seeking to cripple your ability to share information with others. Other service providers are deploying related technology in their own bid to become the gatekeepers to what we do online.

On Thursday, Om Malik looked up the technology Comcast uses to spy upon and block peer-to-peer sharing and found evidence that other ISPs and carriers "are engaging in traffic shaping and management."

Malik points to Sandvine -- an Ontario-based company that provides this technology -- which counts "eight of the top 20 broadband service providers in the U.S." as customers. While Comcast has been snared in one investigation, several other network providers are lurking online with technology that can similarly block us at their whim.

Ghosts in the Machine

And it's not just Sandvine. Earlier this year, AT&T joined forces with Hollywood in a plan to sift Internet traffic for alleged violations of copyright. To do this AT&T would likely use technology offered by Sandvine competitor Cisco, which sells its very own "deep packet inspection" services to any ISP that cay pay the price.

The Cisco technology -- uncovered in plain view by Internet freedom fighter Jeff Chester -- allows client companies like AT&T and Verizon to seize greater control over our Web surfing. In a series of white papers, Cisco urges its network clientele to "meter individual subscriber usage by application," as individuals' online travels are "tracked" and "integrated with billing systems." Such tracking and billing is made possible because they will know "the identity and profile of the individual subscriber," "what the subscriber is doing" and "where the subscriber resides."

AT&T also has patented its own content "shaping" technology designed to implement a "hierarchical arbitration scheme" over the flow of online information. It's a safe bet that they would like to use this to privilege their own sites and services over the blogs, content sharing and Web sites of average Internet users. But AT&T went one further, developing a programming language that allows it to mine data from customer telephone and internet communications for surveillance purposes.

This sort of discriminatory content "management" is a gross violation of Net Neutrality -- the longstanding principle that had once guaranteed a free and open Internet.

Net Neutrality was struck from the books by the FCC in a now infamous 2005 ruling. We're now getting a clear glimpse of the aftermath of this decision -- a world in which companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are allowed to dictate where we go, what we watch and with whom we share information via the Web. And it's a chilling sight.

The YouTube 'Threat'

The not-so-hidden secret behind all of this is video. Network owners are waging a quiet campaign to control how video gets distributed via the Web. In their view, the Internet should only be used for email and surfing. Internet video should be distributed via ISPs. It's a model that treats the Internet like cable TV -- where companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon get to pick the channels you get to see.

The popular trend in video, however, is streaming in the opposite direction. More and more people are becoming their own creators and distributors of homespun video content. For proof that people like to watch videos created by others, go no further than YouTube, which boasts more than 100 million downloads each day.

YouTube is just the beginning of this revolution. Peer-to-peer traffic is spreading via popular technologies like Bit Torrent and Gnutella, which allow users to upload and share videos, music and other rich media without a middleman. The phone and cable companies are desperate to shut down this Web innovation. They're doing it by spying on traffic and stifling the free exchange of ideas that will continue to make the Internet so remarkable.

Comcast's 'Busy Signal'

Comcast's own executives have said that the company "occasionally" delays peer-to-peer traffic using a frighteningly honest analogy about getting a busy signal when making a phone call. "[Your call] will get there eventually," he says, while denying that preventing connections is the same as blocking "calls."

Eric Bangeman of Ars Technica found that Comcast's own FAQ claims that the company engages in "no discrimination based on the type of content" offering customers "unfettered access to all the content, services, and applications" on the Internet.

"You have absolutely nothing to fear from us," phone and cable company PR executives can be heard saying every time their content meddling makes headlines. But at the same time they're spending hundreds of millions on lobbyists to destroy any legislation that would prevent them from realizing our greatest fears -- an Internet where they hold the keys.

Stopping Discrimination Before It's the Norm

On Thursday, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) joined from across the aisle to call for hearings into content discrimination.

They wrote that recent incidents have raised "serious concern about the phone and cable companies' power to discriminate," and called upon the Senate Commerce Committee "to determine if they were based on legitimate business and network management policies or part of practices that would be deemed unfair and anti-competitive."

No matter how you slice it, this new trend of ISP discrimination should send a chill draft up the spine of anyone who wants the Internet to fulfill its democratic promise of equal opportunity communication.

To do this we have to ensure that companies aren't left to stifle our basic freedoms at their whim. Free and open communications must be guaranteed, right now, before content blocking technology becomes the Internet norm.