It’s our network and we can do anything we want.

That’s the scary new mantra of cable giant Comcast when it comes to the issue of open Internet practices, also known as network neutrality.

The Federal Communications Commission recently launched a formal investigation into whether Comcast, the country’s largest provider of cable Internet service, has been illegally blocking or delaying certain types of Internet traffic on its network.

In a filing with the FCC last week Comcast basically told the agency it doesn’t have the power to regulate the company. Even if it did, Comcast argues, all of the sneaky traffic blocking it has recently been caught doing red-handed is perfectly legal and proper.

Contrast that to what Comcast told the FCC in a filing in 2002, when the company was arguing there was no need for the agency to even consider making net neutrality legally binding, rather than just a set of guiding principles.

“Customers will always be able to reach the content they seek to access, regardless of the technologies used to provide this content, or the platforms used to deliver this service.”

Or this, from another Comcast filing with the FCC that same year:

“If a cable company were to attempt to restrict its customers’ access to content, “it would cause uproar among its subscribers and damage its Internet business – ultimately driving customers to switch to [the company’s] competitors.”

Or this statement that Comcast Executive Vice President made to a trade show audience in April 2006:

“We don’t block anyone. We have no plans to block anyone. We’re just not going to disadvantage a competitor by blocking them. We’re in the business of providing to our customers what they want.”

The Bigger Picture

If allowed to stand, Comcast’s bombastic assertions would completely change the rules for virtually any consumer who uses the Internet. It would mean Internet service providers such as Comcast would become powerful gatekeepers, able to control all the data flowing through their network as they wish.

Comcast’s new view of how the Internet should work would short circuit the principles of network neutrality. Under the long-established standards of network neutrality, Internet service providers such as Comcast have always been expected to function as non-discriminating pipelines. All data passing over Internet networks is to be treated the same, no matter whom or where it comes from.

Network neutrality and the openness it has fostered is the primary reason the Internet has become such a vital part of modern society and business. And that’s why what Comcast is now trying to do is such a dark threat to the Internet and all those who use it.

The current FCC investigation of Comcast was touched off by the discovery of some underhanded and under-the-radar Internet network management practices by the company.

Specifically, the Associated Press ran tests that showed Comcast has been blocking or delaying the delivery of Internet traffic from BitTorrent, a popular person-to-person content sharing program.

Here’s what the Associated Press says happened in its tests.

“Comcast’s technology kicks in, though not consistently, when one BitTorrent user attempts to share a complete file with another user.”

“Each PC gets a message invisible to the user that looks like it comes from the other computer, telling it to stop communicating. But neither message originated from the other computer — it comes from Comcast. If it were a telephone conversation, it would be like the operator breaking into the conversation, telling each talker in the voice of the other: “Sorry, I have to hang up. Good bye.”

Constantly Shifting Reasons

Comcast at first denied it was doing anything, but then changed its story to say that it was using the technology only to help “shape” its network traffic. Comcast said the technology was aimed only at what it characterized as “bandwidth hogs,” which the company described as customers that regularly download an inordinate number of large files, such as movies and videos.

Comcast says its technology is meant to prevent such “bandwidth hogs” from slowing down large parts of the company’s network, thereby degrading the service of other customers.

Comcast’s motives appear much more suspect, however.

While file sharing programs are regularly used to move copyrighted material such as movies and music around the Internet, BitTorrent in particular is being used more and more to legitimately distribute such content.

That means BitTorrent and other file sharing programs are fast becoming potent competitors to the highly profitable on-demand video and music services offered by – you guessed it – Comcast.

Comcast’s Priorities Are Suspect

Were it so inclined, Comcast could easily spend the money necessary to upgrade its network to handle higher traffic loads, thereby rendering moot its highly dubious “traffic shaping” tactics. The company clearly has the money to undertake such consumer-friendly improvements to its network: Its latest quarterly profits were up 54 percent.

But instead of upgrading its network, Comcast last week announced it plans to spend $7 billion over the next year to buy back its own stock in an attempt to boost its share price. At the same time the company announced it would be reducing capital spending as a percentage of its revenue. In other words, the company plans to spending less money on things that might improve its service to customers, such as upgrading its network.

The current debate over Comcast’s “traffic shaping” practices is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Comcast and other big Internet service providers such as AT&T have made no secret of the fact that they want their networks to be more than just non-discriminating pipelines for information and entertainment.

Without network neutrality, Comcast and the other big Internet service providers would be free to turn their networks into an array of toll roads. Those willing to pay top dollar – say Hollywood studios – would have their content zipped along the network at maximum speed. Those willing to pay a little less would receive a lower priority on the network.

At the bottom of the food chain would be content providers unwilling to pay to have their information and entertainment move through the network. Their content would be given the lowest priority, possibly to the point of barely creeping along the shoulder of the information highway.

Time For FCC and Congress To Act

Comcast’s latest efforts to undercut the principles of network neutrality and turn the Internet into a hierarchy based on who is willing to pay the most to move their content across its network is both chilling and creepy.

It’s past time for Comcast and many other Internet service providers to be reminded that the only reason they have their networks is because they were granted right-of-way rights and monopoly status by the public through their elected representatives. In exchange, these companies are expected to abide by certain rules and expectations, including the principles of network neutrality.

For the sake of every consumer who uses the Internet, the FCC needs to slap down Comcast hard and make it clear that it takes the principles of network neutrality seriously.

At the same time, Congress needs to pass pending legislation to enshrine the concept of net neutrality into law. Comcast and other Internet service providers have made it more than clear they cannot be trusted to operate under the honor system.

For more information on Comcast and the issue of open Internet access, click on the links below: