Last week, Comcast was found ‘accidentally’ blocking Paypal and Steam Store through its ‘Protected Browsing’ feature. Now, there’s another problem involving a completely legitimate, encrypted email service.
Update: we’ve now heard from another business being blocked by Comcast, for no discernible reason. If you’re getting blocked — by Comcast or any other ISP — please let us know at [email protected].
It’s unclear what rules the Tutanota email service had been violating. What’s completely clear, however, is that Tutanota was completely blocked by Comcast and its Xfinity-branded broadband internet service.
Earlier this month, users of the open source, encrypted email service who were also Xfinity subscribers were unable to access their Tutanota in-boxes. Xfinity offered no explanation to those users (or to anyone else, for that matter).
The block reportedly lasted for more than 12 hours, according to reports from users.
Some users were finally able to access their email accounts though a VPN. And most tellingly: these same users had absolutely no problem accessing Tutanota from another ISP — at a cafe, from their phones, or another non-Xfinity environment. That was confirmed by Tutanota itself, which reported no access issues outside of Comcast subscribers.
ZDNet reporter Zack Whittaker started investigating this issue earlier this week. Amazingly, Comcast refused to explain why Tutanota was blocked. And that was the end of that.
Under a recently-passed net neutrality law in Washington State, ISPs would be required to disclose any blocks, throttles, or other site impairments. They’d have to explain why someone like Tutanota was blocked — even if it was accidental. Other states are actively considering similar legislation, with numerous state governors requiring such disclosures for ISPs working with state agencies.
Two weeks later, Tutanota’s co-founder, Matthias Pfau, says he still has no idea why his service has been getting blocked. Guess Comcast isn’t responding to his repeated inquiries, either. So maybe the block is intentional, maybe it’s not. But without any reply from Comcast or Xfinity, Pfau has no information to make system changes. And, no assurance that whatever caused the first blockage won’t trigger another issue in the future.
All of which kind of sucks for a company that offers email. Accordingly, Pfau questioned whether it was fair that Comcast can block any site it pleases.
In many cases, blockages can be unintentional, but this one looks a little fishy.
Earlier, Comcast’s ‘Protected Browsing’ feature was found blocking legitimate sites like PayPal and Steam Store, also with no explanation. But it was hard to discern why those particular destinations would be flagged.
In the case of Tutanota, a pretty scary possibility related to government surveillance emerges. After all, Tutanota is an encrypted email service, part of a growing class of communication tools designed to protect users from unwanted monitoring. Comcast invests hundreds of millions to lobby the U.S. Government, and is heavily compliant with surveillance demands.
There’s also the distinct possibility that Comcast views Tutanota (and services like it) as unwanted competitors. After all, Xfinity’s own email service, @Comcast.net, is failing to gain any traction against competing services. Indeed, most @comcast.net accounts are left to rot by subscribers, even though they’re packaged into every subscriber account.
Meanwhile, Gmail seems to be taking the cake when it comes to email accounts. But Tutanota has found a clever way to poke into this market — and potentially grab greater marketshare than the heavily-advantaged @comcast.net.
That stings. And it’s probably putting a lot of pressure on whoever the ‘VP of Email’ is at Comcast.
Tutanota is based in Germany, but Pfau says the American repeal of net neutrality could be devastating to European companies. In cases like this one, Pfau has virtually no power over a company like Comcast. Thanks to the broad repeal of net neutrality in the US, however, Comcast will have the power to ‘turn him off’ whenever it pleases.