Comcast revises history, meddles disingenuously

“Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

While J.K. Rowling may have had in mind a magical diary rather than the megacorporation, her words are nonetheless apt outside the world of fantasy. Cable television giant and Internet service provider Comcast Corporation has over the past several months offered us a stark vindication of Mr. Weasley’s [Rowling’s character’s] aphorism.

As early as August of last year, reports that Comcast had been actively interfering with the popular peer-to-peer file sharing protocol BitTorrent began to surface. The BitTorrent protocol, while serving as one of the primary vehicles for copyright infringement on the Internet, is also gaining popularity as an efficient distribution method for legitimate material. Formerly, if I wanted to distribute a large file such as a self-made movie or documentary, even a few downloads might exceed my web host’s allotted capacity. BitTorrent obviates the need for expensive web hosting by allowing people who want to download my file to retrieve it from other people who have already downloaded it, rather than directly from me — thus the “peer-to-peer” moniker.

The protocol has been employed by various organizations like Blizzard Entertainment, which makes the popular online role-playing game “World of Warcraft,” to the U.S. government, which uses BitTorrent to distribute its controversial game/recruitment tool “America’s Army.”

Comcast’s interference with its customers’ use of BitTorrent went beyond the normal traffic-management techniques that are widely used by Internet service providers around the world. Instead of simply throttling back the connections of problem customers, Comcast decided to surreptitiously interfere with them and then worsened the problem by denying any involvement at all.

Conspiracy theories abounded: since BitTorrent is widely used to distribute television programs and feature films, some surmised that Comcast might view the protocol as competition to its own cable television service. Whatever the reasons, Comcast’s actions were enough to prompt an outcry from several public-interest groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology and Public Knowledge. In January of this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began an investigation into Comcast’s network management practices, eventually concluding that Comcast’s actions, while not necessarily illegal, were certainly unreasonable.

In response to the FCC’s findings, and in a transparent attempt to head off any regulatory measures, on Thursday Comcast completely reversed its position on the use of BitTorrent.

In a press release, a Comcast executive stated, “We believe that P2P [peer-to-peer] technology has matured as an enabler for legal content distribution, so we need to have an architecture that can support it with techniques that work over all networks.” Furthermore, Comcast “will migrate by year-end 2008 to a capacity management technique that is protocol agnostic.” While the statement is light on technical details, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has expressed concerns about how long the migration will take, this press release is the first step throughout the whole debacle that Comcast has taken in the right direction.

What is particularly despicable, however, is Comcast’s poor attempt at revisionist history. Touting the sudden change of heart, the press release proclaims “technical issues can be worked out through private business discussions without the need for government intervention.” Ordinarily, this sort of statement could be dismissed as a product of predictable corporate self-interest. In light of the issue’s history, however, the statement is simply a bald-faced lie. Had the FCC not begun its investigation, Comcast would simply have continued to interfere with its customers’ usage of BitTorrent. Now, as soon as the FCC has bared its teeth, Comcast claims that it has reached a solution all by itself.

Even if you give Comcast the benefit of the doubt, it’s difficult to interpret its public relations rhetoric. As Ed Felten, a computer-science professor at Princeton University, has pointed out, Comcast’s confusingly worded statement indicates that it will be entering into negotiations with BitTorrent, Inc., the company that developed the original BitTorrent protocol and maintains its official software. The problem is that hardly anyone uses the official software. Any deal Comcast cuts with BitTorrent, Inc., is small potatoes compared to the overall usage of the BitTorrent protocol.

In spite of Comcast’s assurances that government intervention is not required, the FCC would do well to keep a close watch to make sure that it lives up to its promises and discontinues its practice of interfering in the online activities of its customers.

Comcast, if you want to avoid being smacked with regulation, do us all a favor and listen to J.K. Rowling: keep your hands – and brain – where we can see them.

Gabriel Michael is a graduate student at the Divinity School. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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