Updated 16 September 2014 – see end of article for details.
Comcast really does seem determined to live up to its reputation as being the Mr Nasty of the corporate world. Clearly not caring about customers’ rights privacy, it now seems that Comcast is targeting users of the anonymity onion network, Tor.
Reports are that Comcast has contacted Tor users and demanded that they stop using the service, or risk having their internet connection terminated. Apparently one Comcast agent going by the name of ‘Jeremy’ told a user that Tor was an ‘illegal service’, and that its use contravened Comcast’s usage policies. ‘Jeremy’ then repeatedly asked the customer to explain what websites he was accessing using Tor, to which the customer refused to answer.
The next day another Comcast agent rang, to repeat that Comcast does is not happy with its customers using Tor,
‘Users who try to use anonymity, or cover themselves up on the internet, are usually doing things that aren’t so-to-speak legal. We have the right to terminate, fine, or suspend your account at anytime due to you violating the rules. Do you have any other questions? Thank you for contacting Comcast, have a great day.’
Although Tor is highly effective at masking what users get up to on the internet when connected to its network, an ISP can easily see that Tor is being used. As the Tor project notes when listing Comcast as a ‘bad ISP’, ‘Comcast’s Acceptable Use Policy for residential customers says no servers or proxies under “Technical Restrictions”.’
The full text for this reads,
‘Prohibited Uses and Activities… use or run dedicated, stand-alone equipment or servers from the Premises that provide network content or any other services to anyone outside of your Premises local area network (“Premises LAN”), also commonly referred to as public services or servers. Examples of prohibited equipment and servers include, but are not limited to, email, web hosting, file sharing, and proxy services and servers.’
As a justification for banning the use of Tor, this rule seems to us a poor fit as it refers to hosting a service, not simply using one. Running a Tor exit node would therefore probably be covered by this clause, but it does not seem to prohibit simply using the service.
We will follow developments with interest…
Update 16 September 2014: Comcast has denied this rumor, calling reports about it ‘wildly inaccurate’. Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas told Ars Technica that,
‘This story is wildly inaccurate. Customers are free to use their Xfinity Internet service to visit any website or use it however they wish otherwise.’
He added that,
Comcast ‘doesn’t monitor users’ browser software or Web surfing and has no program addressing the Tor browser. The anecdotal chat room evidence provided is not consistent with our agents’ messages and is not accurate. Per our own internal review, we have found no evidence that these conversations took place, nor do we employ a Security Assurance team member named Kelly. We respect customer privacy and security and only investigate and disclose certain information about a customer’s account with a valid court order or other appropriate legal process.’
Also commenting on the reports, Comcast’s Vice President of Internet Services in Technology, Jason Livingood, says that,
‘Our customers can use Tor at any time, as I have myself. I’m sure many of them are using it right now.’