Everyone's favorite cable monopoly has been caught dabbling in some interesting political waters of late. Last week, the Federation of American Scientists, a group of scientists, engineers, and other technical professionals who research and comment on national policy issues, published a company handbook revealing that for the bargain price of $1,000, Comcast would happily intercept any and all of its customers' communications that the government requests through FISA.
Now, in addition to turning over user information, the ISP is deliberately interfering with customers' file sharing activities. Essentially, the company interrupts uploads and downloads by masquerading as its users, so that each person in a peer-to-peer transaction believes that the other has terminated the connection. File-sharing, which by some estimates makes up 90% of all internet traffic, requires a lot of bandwith and can slow connections for other users on the network. So, if I want to stream a movie on the same network within which someone else is downloading 60 albums, I'm probably out of luck. Comcast argues that its interference is necessary to maintain high-speed access for all users. While that may be partially true, the company's lack of discrimination stands to negatively affect the broader online community.
The issue at hand is Net Neutrality—the principle that all data traveling over the internet should be equally accessible to all users. Take that away and you end up with the kind of pay-to-play system that telecoms have been pushing for of late. The question tends to galvanize people across the political spectrum who don't want their connections interfered with, and a broad coalition of internet groups, including bloggers and search engines, actively support neutrality.
The FCC is currently reviewing internet practices to determine whether companies can charge for faster service, and the DOJ has recently said that it would discourage any neutrality requirements as detrimental to online business growth. But whatever plays out in Washington, Comcast's traffic control strategy may signal a way that telecoms will attempt to regulate their traffic anyway, simply by claiming they're protecting their own property: Rather than charging you for the space you use, they'll just stop you when they think you use too much.