It’s tough to watch TV for more than ten minutes without being begged to switch Internet Service Providers. Indeed, competition for your ISP dollars is so fierce that we often see back to back commercials for different companies that provide nearly identical services. And if you believe the marketing, every ISP offers “blazing fast” speeds, “award-winning” customer service and just about everything short of eternal youth for “only $39.95 per month.” Naturally, such high and mighty promises are cause for some skepticism about what you actually receive. Today we shine the spotlight on 9 ways ISPs do and have screwed customers over, in spite of their bold claims and hefty fees.
One oft-protested behavior of various ISP’s is the throttling – that is, limiting – of bandwith at certain times or for certain uses. Some ISPs simply limit one’s bandwidth during peak usage hours when the network is under stress. An example might be that between say, 6PM and 10PM, upload and download speeds are somewhat reduced to ensure there is enough bandwidth for all their ISPs customers. However, other ISPs (such as Comcast) have made headlines for throttling bandwidth for certain types of traffic – such as peer-to-peer file sharing. Under such a setup, one’s Internet speeds are curtailed when engaging in activities the ISP personally disapproves of or wants to discourage. This has led to outcries of deception and false advertising, as most customers (understandably) assume the promised bandwidth amount applied to anything they chose to do online. NewTeeVee.com offers a 5 step test to check if your ISP throttles P2P, for those concerned or interested.
Deceptive Speed Claims
Examine the fine print on most ISP commercials, and you will likely find that the promised Internet speed (say, 10MBPS) has the words “up to” in front of it. As it turns out, this is often a clever means of dodging the truth about the actual speeds you are likely to receive. According to P2P.net, Canadian ISP Bell was targeted by an ad campaign urging Bell’s customers to run independent speed tests on their connections, as well as warned that “what you are paying for may not be what you’re getting.” Remarking on the story, P2P.net acknowledges the common “industry practice of advertising the maximum or “up to” speeds for customers, rather than minimum or actual speeds that customers typically obtain.” Even more troubling is a recent British study claiming that over 50% of broadband users in the UK surf the web at “less than half the speed” they thought they were getting.
Increasingly, some of the most passionate complaints against ISPs have involved privacy concerns. A case in point is Charter’s decision in 2008 to begin tracking its users’ search behavior and using them to insert ads into their results. Billed by Charter as an “enhancement” of the user’s “online experience”, the practice was, at bottom, little more than an unexpected intrusion into consumer privacy designed to create extra ad revenue for the company. While customers did have the ability to opt out, Consumerist reports that this was almost more burdensome than the advertising. Keeping one’s search activity private required submitting “their personal information to Charter via an unencrypted form” and downloading a “privacy cookie that must be downloaded again each time a user clears his web cache.” Clearly, Charter went out of its way to make this “enhancement” all but mandatory – and supremely annoying.
2007′s Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act mandated that all ISPs enable the feds to “wiretap” Internet transmissions in much the same way they do phone calls. Naturally, privacy-conscious web surfers see this as an intrusion on their Internet travels. WebProNews, for example, quotes a concerned citizen as claiming the new wiretap law “represents a potential holiday for dirty cops who don’t have warrants to use these back-doors” and spy on what innocent people are doing online. Kevin Paulson of ThreatLevel also felt that making it easier for governments to wiretap would create “more reason to eschew old-fashioned police work in favor of spying.” Needless to say, CALEA-approved web spying isn’t something the big ISPs are too eager to talk about in their ad campaigns.
Ad-Filled “Website Not Found” Pages
Always on the lookout for new sources of revenue (however small), some ISPs have taken to displaying ads in their error pages. For instance, when you visit a website that is down or non-existent, the standard “website not found” error page may now contain advertisements that your ISP gets paid for displaying. While not as offensive as throttling bandwidth, it is still irksome that an ISP would stoop to putting up ads on error pages as a way of squeezing even more money out of its userbase.
Deep Packet Inspection
Another serious gripe privacy advocates have with ISPs is what is known as “deep packet inspection.” Without leading readers through swamps of technical jargon, deep packet inspection is the practice of examining a user’s Internet habits in gross detail, such that exactly what they are doing is plain to any observer at the ISP. One common use of DPI alluded to earlier is targeted advertising. According to Wikipedia, “as many of 10% of US customers” have already been tracked by DPI for advertising reasons alone. However, it is also been used by ISPs to police copyright infringement by detecting when someone is or may be downloading songs or movies – and some ISPs go a step further by turning this information over to inquiring record labels. Furthermore, privacy advocates fear that the “lawful intercept” justification of DPI could eventually be used for censorship or oppression (as is currently done in China.)
It’s one thing for ISPs to throttle the speed of P2P downloading, but quite another to actively interfere and prevent it from occurring. Regrettably, this appears to be exactly what Comcast did during 2007. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports, Comcast engaged in what is known as “packet spoofing” (or packet forgery) by interrupting file transfers with bogus packets that killed any P2P downloads a user happened to be engaging in. For instance, a user who was trying to download an album’s worth of MP3s would literally have packets injected into his connection that caused his MP3 downloads to fail. Nor was this an acknowledged policy on Comcast’s part – according to EFF, it was discovered by a savvy customer who detected the forged packets by running a packet sniffing application on his computer. Since high download speeds are arguably broadband’s biggest selling point, it seems especially malicious that an ISP would conspire to prevent that exact thing from happening once someone paid to use the service.
Inadequate Virus/Spyware Protection
ISP’s have also come under fire for charging high subscriber fees without adequately protecting consumers from spyware, viruses and other forms of online fraud. Generally speaking, service agreements between you and your ISP indemnify them from responsibility for any damage or losses caused by spyware or viruses you get infected with on their network. Instead, users (many of whom don’t know the first thing about Internet security) are left to fend for themselves with any number of unsupported and unfamiliar “scanning” tools that attempt to remedy problems after they’ve had time to wreak havoc. Many is the individual who has lost valuable data or had his identity stolen in connection to a virus the ISP did little or nothing to prevent.
ISPs may not receive as much fee-related criticism as, say, wireless phone providers, but they are far from blameless. MSNBC reports on a telling example back in 2006, when a a $2-$3 per month federal tax on DSL users was taken off the books. But rather than lowering its subscriber fees by $2-$3, Verizon thought better of it and kept fees the same by adding a “supplier surcharge” fee. Its amount? You guessed it – $2-$3. Other ISPs quickly followed suit, innocuously labeling the new fee a “regulatory cost recovery fee” as though nobody would question it. Luckily, investigative pressure (and the threat of an FTC probe) nixed these fees in a hurry, but the ISP’s willingness to enforce them suggests all consumers need to cast a skeptical eye over their bills every now and then.