Packet Forgery By ISPs: A Report on the Comcast Affair
Comcast is the second largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the United States. They run the cable TV and cable Internet networks in many parts of the United States, and many consumers know them as their duopoly or monopoly provider of residential broadband Internet access.
Some time around May 2007, Comcast installed new software or equipment on its networks that began selectively interfering with some of Comcast's customers' TCP/IP connections.1 The most widely discussed interference was with certain BitTorrent peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing communications, but other protocols have also been affected. This white paper is intended to set forth the current state of public knowledge about Comcast's interference activities.
Since I am a Comcast subscriber, I can confirm that Comcast is interfering with ordinary web traffic as well as the P2P attacks the EFF and others have documented.
I have received numerous "The connection was reset while the page was still loading" errors, mostly while doing Google searches or while browsing the online auction site Ebay. I do not know if Comcast is interfering with other search engines or auction sites.
What Comcast users are seeing is a clash of cultures more than of technology: the Internet is an open, standards-based, cooperative culture, designed and built by technical professionals and academics whose world-view did not include any notion of sabotage or "data corals" or spam. Comcast, on the other hand, is fundamentally a cable-tv provider, with an attitude that, IMNSHO, holds customers as sheep to be sheared and standards as rules that only others have to follow.
In the short term, my solution will be to abandon Comcast when their trial pricing expires next year and to return to ADSL service, most likely from Speakeasy, which was my former provider. If I assume that Comcast's packet tampering is intended to force "high" bandwidth users off their cables, and that it can do so without endangering its other (highly-profitable) tv-distribution and telephone businesses, then it's in my best interests to dump Comcast and seek better alternatives.
In the long term, however, my options are less clear: while I don't like Comcast's tampering, there's little I can do about it except blow off steam in a public newsgroup. The Internet is growing up, and the ideas of fair play and cooperation that came from the colleges and universities which created the net must now give way to hard-headed, sometimes cynical, responses to Comcast's and others attempts to twist it's purpose for commercial gain at the expense of the users' loss.
Such responses will cover the gamut of both technical feasibility and hacker creativity: I hope most will retreat into the walled gardens provided by W.A.S.T.E. or other encrypted VPNs, and that some will game the system with non-standard port numbers and multi-hop relaying. What I fear is that too many will just write a check and pay more for unfiltered transport.
I have one consolation: although Comcast's management is too myopic to see it, I predict that the short-term benefit of packet tampering will become a Phyrric Vicory. As the EFF report points out, Comcast's actions might fragment the Internet user pool into "high bandwidth" and "low bandwidth" camps, with those seeking movies or software upgrades or Feisty Fawn ISO's being forced to move to higher priced, but less troublesome, services. That result, however, is probably exactly what Comcast's management _thinks_ it wants, despite the fact that users fleeing dismal Internet service are much more likely to seek better telephone and tv-distribution options in the bargain, and even more likely to seek them from organizations whose corporate culture holds interference with the content of customers' communications as anathema.
Comcast is definitely playing dirty. A friend uses their service in MA. He can use other net protocols just fine but his VPN connection to his office drops every four minutes. It's not his software, it's Comcast dropping the packets in order to force him to upgrade to a business account.
I see a class action suit against Comcast in the very near future.
***** Moderator's Note *****
As I said in my personal post earlier, this is a clash of cultures: Comcast's corporate culture is tied around the delivery of entertainment, and the firm does not, and might never, have the maturity to think of "their" users as anything but cash cows who need milking.
I bet Comcast is assigning "quotas" to/from traffic to the most popular sites and resetting connections when the quota is exceeded. Watch Comcast eventually try to extort money out of eBay, Google etc. in order to have non crippled access to Comcast customers.