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Ripples in the data stream

Internet users take for granted the free flow of information that has made the Net such a vibrant and innovative communications medium. But Comcast cable-modem users have discovered that certain types of information don’t flow so well, and the company has been less than forthcoming as to why.

Recent investigations by the Associated Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and blogger Kevin Kanarski uncovered surreptitious efforts by Comcast to interfere with at least three types of traffic: packets sent via the BitTorrent and Gnutella protocols, which are forms of file-sharing software, and through Lotus Notes, an electronic messaging program. Comcast’s equipment tried to interdict at least some of the data, particularly if it involved communications with non-Comcast customers. And it did so in a way that was designed to hide Comcast’s involvement.

Comcast officials say the Lotus Notes problems were caused by a software glitch, adding that the company does not block customers from using file-sharing applications. It does, however, manage its network so that a few subscribers using bandwidth-hogging programs don’t slow everyone else’s Web surfing.

BitTorrent, which enables users to download as much data as their Internet connection can handle, can consume a lot of network capacity. Together with other file-sharing programs, it accounts for more than a third of all data sent across the Net. So it’s not surprising that Comcast, the largest supplier of Internet service to U.S. homes, would try to manage the load that those programs place on its network.

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The problem is that Comcast has done that management secretly and unpredictably. To avoid the appearance of surveilling its users, it has applied its management tools indiscriminately, which means that legitimate BitTorrent downloads are affected as much as bootlegged ones. And while it insists that it doesn’t block anything, it’s easy to see how Comcast’s interference could prove problematic for businesses using BitTorrent as a distribution platform.

The revelations about Comcast are the latest sign that stronger rules are needed to bar improper meddling by broadband providers, at least until consumers have more alternatives. Network operators shouldn’t be able to dictate how companies distribute their wares online. Comcast’s cable-TV arm, after all, competes with companies that use BitTorrent for online TV services, and consumers should be able to judge them without Comcast’s influence. Nor should network operators surreptitiously impede data, leaving customers unaware of the extent or source of the interference. If customers are using a disproportionate amount of bandwidth, let them pay for extra for it.


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