Are Comcast and the NSA Locking Horns over Bandwidth?
Social media and privacy watchdog sites erupted today following a series of tweets implying that one or more high-level Comcast executives had been hurriedly called to Washington, D.C. to meet with U.S. government officials. The messages seemed to indicate that leadership of the cable giant would be meeting with officials of the National Security Agency, perhaps in regard to Comcast’s reported practice of limiting or even degrading network performance for certain third parties.
The three tweets were posted on 1 April 2014 just after 1:30 AM Eastern Daylight Time, and have the tone of private “direct” messages that may have accidentally been posted publicly.
@JustACableGuy: Summoned to DC to meet with Rogrs ppl, at least they knew we don’t fly coach
@JustACableGuy: bc the internet is free like shipping and handling are free, lol. spcl needs mean spcl arrangements
@JustACableGuy: what can I say, capping works
The individual tweets were deleted within a few minutes, but were preserved as screenshots by sharp-eyed followers. The @JustACableGuy account was deleted entirely within the next half hour.
Online speculation centered on whether “Rogrs” referred to Vice Admiral Michael S. Rogers, currently being confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new head of the NSA (see “Keeping Up with the Snoops 4: When the Going Gets Weird…,” 13 March 2014). Other discussions focused on the word “capping” and whether it referred to Comcast’s long-standing practice of limiting customers’ monthly Internet usage, or its more controversial reported practice of throttling high bandwidth services on its network unless operators make special arrangements with the company. Video streaming operator Netflix recently entered into an agreement to pay Comcast for preferred access to its network, although financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The owner of the now-deleted @JustACableGuy Twitter account is unknown — the account was not verified and its profile information never identified an individual or corporation. The account had followed a range of news outlets and individual technology journalists, and several technology writers have privately acknowledged receipt of seemingly well-informed direct messages from the account on matters concerning Comcast since late 2012. I received two such messages following “Comcast Makes $45 Billion Bid for Time Warner Cable” (18 February 2014).
Revelations of extensive government surveillance of Internet communications have so far generally indicated the NSA and other agencies have preferred to target service providers like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft rather than network operators like Comcast. However, Comcast is the United States’ largest Internet provider with nearly 21 million broadband subscribers at the end of 2013.
Comcast and other network operators must comply with disclosure orders from the still-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. However, that doesn’t mean they work for free. U.S. law permits network operators to charge for reimbursement and “reasonable expenses” for complying with government surveillance demands, including FISA orders. Documents released by Edward Snowden claim intelligence agencies paid millions of dollars to companies complying with the PRISM data collection program; Verizon and other network operators have acknowledged receiving millions in taxpayer dollars for enabling bulk data collection of telephone records. Comcast also offers voice services.
If the deleted tweets reflect current interactions between Comcast and the NSA, they suggest Comcast may be intentionally limiting network performance for those government operations. That would put Comcast in the ironic position of being roundly criticized for stepping around net neutrality principles, but potentially helping to protect its customers’ privacy by limiting the government’s bulk data collection capabilities.
Despite details from the Snowden revelations, the full extent of U.S. government surveillance and bulk data collection is still unknown. However, data collection has been underway for some time, and the Obama administration does not seem inclined to scale back the efforts, even if the ongoing controversy may spark limited oversight reforms.
If Comcast executives have been summoned to Washington to meet with intelligence officials, it may simply indicate Comcast is being pragmatic. If government data requirements are extensive and likely to increase with no end in sight, Comcast may have decided to treat the intelligence community the same way it would treat any other high-bandwidth service like Netflix that wants to access its network: as a source of revenue.