Here we go again. Another Internet service provider is caught getting in the way of its users, just four days before the Federal Communications Commission closes the window for public comments in its effort to stop such meddling.
Windstream Communications, a DSL provider with more than one million customers, has copped to hijacking user search queries made using Firefox's popular browser -- even when a user has set it to use another search engine.
Following comments by outraged customers, a company spokesperson told DSL Reports that indeed Windstream had taken over this function. The company pledged to fix the problem, apparently unaware that people might prefer the freedom to choose search engines for themselves.
There are still details to be sorted out, but we do know this:
Windstream had been intercepting toolbar search queries possibly using deep packet inspection technology. When a user enters a search query into the Firefox toolbar, Windstream inserts itself between the user and the provider of that application. The search query is then redirected to a Windstream-owned search engine, where the company can derive additional revenue from the captured traffic.
Telltale Signs of a Neutrality Violation
Such Net prying has all the telltale markings of a Net Neutrality violation. "Any time an ISP stands in the middle of its users accessing lawful content, we've got a Net Neutrality violation," said Free Press Research Director Derek Turner. Free Press has called upon the FCC to investigate.
"Hijacking a search query is not much different from deliberately 'redirecting' a user from NYTimes.com to WashingtonPost.com," Turner said. "And a limited 'opt-out' capability is not enough to justify Internet discrimination."
This is further proof of the need for clear open Internet rules and ISP disclosure obligations.
Meanwhile, Over at the FCC
As luck would have it, the FCC is in the process of crafting these rules. And the public has just four days left to tell the agency how it can best protect an open Internet. (You can take action here).
Increasingly companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have sought to encroach upon users' freedom to choose what they do, where they go and with whom they connect via the Internet. Net Neutrality is essential to keeping the future of communications open to all Americans -- and preventing ISPs from picking winners and losers on the Web.
Phone and cable lobbyists have repeatedly characterized Net Neutrality as a "solution in search of a problem." A simple Google search on that phrase (if your provider will allow it) will return dozens of instances where industry spokespeople have repeated the phrase in a push to paint the Internet as free of gatekeepers.
High-profile violations of Net Neutrality include Comcast's efforts to block popular file sharing applications and Madison River's blocking of Internet-based telephone services. AT&T has met with motion picture and record industry execs over a proposal to spy on all online communications and throttle those they deem "illegal." ISPs are also purchasing deep packet inspection equipment with the capability to pry open user content and monetize subscribers' every use of the Internet.
Add Windstream to that list and you have a compelling case for open Internet protections. It's now up to you and the FCC to put them in place.
An outrageous DC Circuit Court decision today has left the FCC unable to protect consumers in the broadband marketplace, unable to implement the National Broadband Plan and unable to protect Net Neutrality.
As a result the agency has virtually no power to stop Comcast from blocking Web sites, or to make policies that bring broadband to rural America, promote competition, and protect consumer privacy and truth in billing.
This ruling is reminiscent of the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision, in that it is a wholesale judiciary giveaway to corporate interests. In this case, it's our freedom to control our Internet experience that's being sacrificed.
This is not an acceptable outcome for the nearly two million Americans who have called for protections of an open Internet. The FCC must take action to reestablish legal authority.
The ruling is a direct consequence of misguided and overzealous attempts by a Bush-era FCC to completely deregulate America's communications networks. The FCC must have the authority to carry out its consumer protection and public interest mission in the 21st century broadband marketplace.
The current Commission did not create this crisis, but it now has no choice but to face these tough jurisdictional questions head on, and do what is necessary to protect consumers and promote competition. The good news is that there is a simple solution.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski can "reclassify" broadband as a "communications service." The formidable phone and cable companies will fight tooth and nail to keep that from happening, but we can't simply hand over control of the Internet to companies like AT&T and Comcast who will turn it into a private fiefdom, where they have ultimate control over your clicks.