Let the record show that I am not a fan of most so-called 'network neutrality' legislation. Tiers of service date back to the oldest profession, and the government shouldn't generally be screwing around with private contract. But while that oldest profession is inherently WYSIWYG, most people have to take the delivery of network services on faith. Few users have the sophistication to analyze IP traffic and find out if they really are getting best efforts service - they need some trust in the good intent of the provider.
Comcast has apparently been caught red-handed, violating that assumption of trust, by disabling network sessions that can be identified as coming from the BitTorrent peer-to-peer application. This apparently also affects Gnutella, another P2P app, as well as IBM's Lotus Notes business collaboration suite. (One presumes the latter is through incompetence.) After a certain amount of shucking and jiving, Comcast seems to have admitted "Yeah, we kinda sorta do that".
I do have some sympathy for Comcast's plight, having managed an ISP back in the mid-90s. Peer to peer and other high duty cycle applications can mess up your assumptions for provisioning both neighborhood and head-end bandwidth and routing resources. With that occurring at the same time as networked video is gaining wide adoption, I'm sure the life of an MSO or LEC IP network planner is an interesting one these days. 'Traffic shaping and grooming' is part of the toolkit to make sure that the higher duty cycle and bandwidth users don't squeeze out the less demanding user who just wants a web page to load, or to run a Skype session. (Disclosure: We have an investment in a company, Bay Microsystems, whose products can be used to construct packet filtering and traffic shaping systems.)
However, Comcast has crossed the line in two ways. First by selectively impeding certain types of traffic, without disclosing the fact to the customers. Whatever boneheaded logic led to this, any perceived PR benefits from concealment have now blown up in its face. Customers with no interest in hosting a Torrent are going to read the stories and wonder if their applications are being treated fairly or not. Slowdowns natural to a shared neighborhood network will lead to new suspicions. Network neutrality regulation and legislation that have been languishing may get new momentum.
Secondly, if the traffic analysis is correct, Comcast has stepped over a technical line in a way that may have legal ramifications: All IP networks dump data packets when they become congested. That's how the Internet works, and any application level protocol running on it is set up to deal with packet loss. But Comcast has been going further, acting as a 'man in the middle' and forging packets that tell both ends of a connection to drop the session. That's deliberate sabotage of the user's system and intent.
The two faults add up to a PR bloody nose, and could skate close to the edge of false advertising and outright fraud. Ironically, session trashing might also invoke a DMCA violation. IANAL, but I expect some of those who are will be looking at the implications, including class action. This could all have been avoided by a full disclosure.
For boneheadedness beyond the call of duty, I hereby bestow on Comcast this blog's Dubious Distinction award for business idiocy. Hey, it's Comcastic!
(Update: Since I already gave this coveted award to Comcast once before, perhaps this time just gives them a poison oak leaf cluster to add to their decorations. The older post makes interesting reading - their corporate culture seems to be intact, let's say.)
(Update 2: Yup, here come the lawyers, right on cue - the post also contains a more detailed analysis of the packet forging technique.)
(Update 3: And the congresscritters are close behind them.)