Comcast and Friends Aren't So Neutral After All

The net neutrality debate has been much quieter lately than in 2006, but recent developments imply it should be revisited. Take, for example, recent word that Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) has been blocking BitTorrent traffic. This comes after Comcast was recently accused of blocking heavy bandwidth users last month.

BitTorrent may bring piracy to mind, since it's a peer-to-peer file-sharing service; it allows people to share and download large files quickly. BitTorrent Inc. has made some moves to embrace media companies and, in effect, go "legit" as a sales platform as well. That's understandable, since the technology is a great solution, hastening downloads through collaborative processing. Anybody who's ever agonized through a long video download using Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes can probably understand why BitTorrent makes sense.

Comcast admitted to "delaying" some subscribers' usage in a temporary move implemented to improve other users' Internet experience (AP reported that only uploads were hindered by Comcast). You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect a discriminatory decision, since many BitTorrent users may be dealing with copyrighted data, and likely not legitimately. But is it really OK for Comcast to make such judgment calls? That's a particularly good question in light of the fact that its computers impeded the traffic by masquerading as other users' computers.

It's not just Comcast, either. Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) was going to block NARAL from using its network for a text messaging campaign (a move it said was a "mistake" a day later). And AT&T (NYSE: T  ) recently changed a section of its service agreement, which, unbelievably, would have let it fire Internet users who disparaged it.

Not surprisingly, two senators have started looking into whether these companies are overstepping their bounds.

Net neutrality has been a difficult issue for me, personally. I dueled against it in June 2006, given the idea that regulation may have the best intentions but often results in unforeseen negative outcomes, not least of which may be suppressing innovation. (Since then, my Foolish colleague Anders Bylund has revisited the duel.) However, I may be a big fan of freedom, but for the non-regulated approach to work, companies need to do the right thing.

These developments send some disturbing messages to consumers. After all, another one of my anti-net-neutrality arguments was that the companies in question should know better than to anger their customers by degrading their service or telling them what to do. Well, apparently that logic's not as elementary as I thought. If net neutrality rears its ugly head again and results in tough regulation, given recent indications, maybe telecom and cable companies will deserve it.

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