Comcast: Delivering the Internet even when it isn't really there

Comcast's roll out of Domain Helper (also know as "DNS Helper") hit us at work this morning. This fascinating typosquatting tool would be illegal if it were done by anybody but an ISP. (And might actually be illegal under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. If it isn't illegal, it should be.) As designed, Domain Helper is a supremely irritating form of network damage that makes complete hash out of DNS. What it's supposed to do is return a paid search page for any URL that doesn't exist. What Comcast is effectively doing here, is giving themselves a free domain name registration for all domains that have yet to be registered. To me, that's stealing. (Comcast isn't alone either, apparently Verizon and Virgin also engage in this nefarious practice.)

That's when Domain Helper works correctly, which it doesn't always. Sometimes, it keeps you from getting to web sites that actually exist. So, possibly because of design errors that Comcast may have little incentive to fix, Comcast users will now occasionally get a search page instead of the legitimate web site they asked for.

To top it off, Comcast doesn't follow their own published rules for Domain Helper. Comcast says they'll only intercept pages that begin with "www." This is important, because it makes it less likely that Comcast will sweep up an obvious typo. But today at our shop, "wwww.google.com" is intercepted by Domain Helper.

Even Comcast wouldn't do something this evil without an opt-out. Except the opt-out is broken, at least for us. The following conversation would be funny if it weren't sad. Apparently, Comcast replaced an earlier opt-out system that didn't work well, with a whizzy new opt-out system that doesn't work well. When people ask what ISP we have at work, I answer, "we don't have internet service at work; we have Comcast."

[Edit: Comcast can't figure out why their opt-out won't work for us, but they did give us URLs for DNS servers that provide the correct DNS service. Since we're geeks, we can hardwire our DNS at the router instead of getting it via DHCP. It's not super-hard to do, but it's pretty ridiculous.]

Help Chat room text follows:

user Brian_ has entered room

Brian(Tue Sep 8 16:37:14 PDT 2009)>
wish to disable Domain Helper, but primary login does not display that option below the "Device 1" info. Oddly although I am logged in [...] says "hello, *".

analyst Mark has entered room

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:38:35 PDT 2009)>
Hello Brian_, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Mark. Please give me one moment to review your information.

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:38:53 PDT 2009)>
No problem. I can help you with your account.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:39:02 PDT 2009)>
great, thx

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:40:27 PDT 2009)>
What is Domain Helper?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:40:37 PDT 2009)>
it's that whacked out DNS hijacker

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:41:42 PDT 2009)>
Is it a toolbar on your browser or a web site?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:41:39 PDT 2009)>

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:41:59 PDT 2009)>
its your web site

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:44:05 PDT 2009)>
Ok. That looks like a feature of the browser..

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:44:32 PDT 2009)>
NO. It's your routers intercepting DNS errors and substituting a search page instead. Bad juju.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:45:11 PDT 2009)>
Let's go ahead and kick this upstairs to somebody who understands the product offerings, shall we?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:49:45 PDT 2009)>

Mark(Tue Sep 8 16:51:52 PDT 2009)>
This actually can't be 'switched off' because it is on all our servers for resolving domain names and helps get you to a valid page.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:53:01 PDT 2009)>
Do I need to dig up your own FAQ for you on that as well? Search on "Domain Helper Opt-Out" while you're transferring me to your manager.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:53:49 PDT 2009)>

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:56:50 PDT 2009)>
That's the FAQ for turnging it off, except of course it doesn't work. The promised opt-out link isn't where it's meant to be. I'm thinking it has something to do with the weirdness in my primary account where [...] it calls me "*".

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:57:15 PDT 2009)>
But really, please just boost me to somebody more senior. This is getting silly.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:58:37 PDT 2009)>
Also you might enjoy https://dns-opt-out.comcast.net/help-index.php

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 13:58:50 PDT 2009)>

Mark(Tue Sep 8 17:00:13 PDT 2009)>
You may need to clear the browser temporary files and cookies and set the security levels to the defaults.

Make sure you have the following:

- the latest version of adobe flash and shockwave installed from http://www.adobe.com
- the latest updates installed from Windows Update.

analyst Mark has been temporarily disconnected. Please wait while the analyst attempts to reconnect.

Analyst has left the room. Your problem is being escalated to another analyst

analyst Amber has entered room

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:07:52 PDT 2009)>
I can certainly relate to your needs and to have you in this chat is as good as fulfilling my own. I am committed in wanting to provide you with the best customer service experience. You can surely take your worries out. Let me prove my expertise.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:08:42 PDT 2009)>
OK! Per that last suggestion: Two fully up to date PCs, three different browesers (IE, Firefox, Chrome), same effect. No opt-out link in the CustomerCentral page, and that weird "hello, *" thing.

analyst Amber has been temporarily disconnected. Please wait while the analyst attempts to reconnect.

analyst Amber has entered room

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:10:57 PDT 2009)>
hello again

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:11:05 PDT 2009)>
Is Domain helper installed on your computer?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:11:40 PDT 2009)>
is this the right chat room? Please read the FAQs I've already posted in this chat.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:12:12 PDT 2009)>
Or can you see the previous exchanges?

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:13:04 PDT 2009)>
Brian, is this a business account?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:13:07 PDT 2009)>

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:14:41 PDT 2009)>
I apologize Brian, as much as I wanted to assist you with your concern however for Business Accounts, you need to call our Business Accounts Department. I will provide you with their telephone number.

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:14:54 PDT 2009)>
sure, great, whatever

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:15:20 PDT 2009)>
Phone number is 800-316-1619

Amber(Tue Sep 8 17:15:48 PDT 2009)>
It was my pleasure assisting you today. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Brian_(Tue Sep 8 14:17:26 PDT 2009)>
I sincerely doubt it.


Anonymous said...

this isnt a violation of terms of service? this is not unhindered access to the internet.

Erik Nilsson said...

I suspect Comcast's terms of service permit them to do this. The FCC might take an interest in this practice, however.

The more important point to me is, this isn't really what people mean when they say "Internet."

Seattle said...

I was so annoyed my this comcast service and that I attempted to opt out and stil hanging. First, I spent 30 min trying to get my main account and password because I don't use comast email. Was online with chat for 30 because they ask you for your pin. Again, didn't know what this was since I open my comcast account 2 years ago and never had to use.

Now I log in, had to accept all this agreement then you click on opt out option and it hangs. It won't allow me to go to the page at all to opt out.

There has to be more people mad about this. it feels very fishy for comcast to override our default.

Erik Nilsson said...

@Seattle: I have heard several complaints similar to yours. This is what I call "strategic incompetence." Comcast has no incentive to do this well. We already hate them, so hating them more doesn't really hurt them, at least in the short term.

Erik Nilsson said...

...and now Comcastic concedes the brand value of their name has gone negative, necessitating the launch of a new brand. Nostalgically, it's a neologism with an X. Whatevers. They'll wear this one out in a few years too.