Comcastic?

Brad Hock

What’s the deal with the telecommunications industry? The question should be asked with the same earnestness of Jerry Seinfeld, but in a much more serious tone.

It’s an important question. The digital age has brought an intricate web of legal complications, and the battles over net neutrality and wire-tapping and Comcast’s recent actions raise more points for contestation.

Consider first the history of the net neutrality debate.

A year ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deregulated the broadband market once the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to do so. This means that internet service providers (ISPs) would be permitted to charge different rates for different network services. Content-providers such as Yahoo and Google could pay an ISP to get more bandwidth – the sites would be able to run faster and support more users simultaneously on its network – and have access to the ISP’s subscribers.

While giving more bandwidth to sites that receive high traffic is innocuous, the idea of a deregulated market should raise concern over whether the ISPs would charge more for bandwidth to the budding entrepreneur. High expenses could substantially prevent some such sole proprietors from entering the market. According to The New York Times, the ISP Comcast last month admitted to purposely slowing down the traffic on BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer filesharing module, even though companies are using the program to exchange copyrighted material legally.

Further, it is doubtful that in the near future there will be any piece of legislation that will prevent telecom companies from engaging in practices that will slow down traffic on particular websites because writing and enacting legislation on the matter would likely be a long and expensive process. And it is not guaranteed that the legislation, if formulated in precise terms, would pass anyway.

In the meantime, more support for net neutrality will help to prevent the telecom companies from gaining market power – which the companies have used in increasingly controversial ways.

The telecom companies, once granted immunity through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), have aided the Federal Bureau of Investigators and the National Security Agency gather data from phone calls, text messages and emails. Congress will soon vote on whether or not the immunity for telecoms – a much contested piece of legislation in Washington – should be extended in the near future.

Despite the controversy over FISA, it seems the telecoms have not raised any objections to infringe upon the right to privacy of many American citizens. And just two weeks ago, The New York Times reported that on at least one occasion ISPs gave the authorities more private information than was required of them when a glitch caused an entire computer network to be flagged instead of a single account.

These mistakes seem to not phase the telecom companies, who remain audacious. Recently, for example, Comcast paid disinterested people to attend a hearing at Harvard University on net neutrality (at least it is a widely believed rumor). By using such measures to prevent from the interested public the release of information that could potentially hurt Comcast’s hope for a non-neutral internet, Comcast easily gets my vote for being unprincipled.

Because they seemingly care only about market power and money, Comcast and the other telecom companies should not be left behind closed doors.