Peter Eckersley could try out for the Navy SEALs of computer geekdom. He's what you might call a white-hat hacker, or a good hacker. The computer science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Melbourne works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Bay Area's internationally respected tech-rights nonprofit, and has biked over to my house this afternoon on his purple ten-speed to help me set an electronic trap. He speaks in an Australian accent, and shoulders a messenger bag holding a PC laptop armed to the keys with advanced Internet detection tools. I point him to my living room.
First we tear up my entertainment center and disable its Internet security settings so he can get a clear view of the raw Net. Then Eckersley perches in my office chair and begins prepping. Below his black pinstripe slacks, a green 50-foot Ethernet cable snakes away from his PC like a lasso to my Comcast cable modem — the little black box I received when I became one of its 14 million high-speed Internet subscribers.
Eckersley says we'll try to send an ordinary PDF file across the Internet to a designated computer in Melbourne. The file will travel via an increasingly popular file-sharing language called BitTorrent, which is also the name of the San Francisco company that developed the "peer-to-peer" technology. Internet users worldwide use Bit-Torrent to download and upload music, movies, and, of course, tons of porn.
The problem with BitTorrent — at least from Comcast's perspective — is that its users hog bandwidth and slow down Internet connections for others. BitTorrent users have long accused Comcast of purposely blocking their file transfers. For months, Comcast officials have denied such "data discrimination." That's why Eckersley is at my apartment today: He's running a test — sending the PDF using Bit-Torrent — to see whether Comcast attacks the file. If it goes through unmolested, Comcast is off the hook. If our transmission is blocked, we have more circumstantial evidence that Comcast is screwing with us.
After about 30 minutes of prep, Eckersley says everything is ready and holds up an index finger. "All right," he says. "The moment of truth."
His finger descends slowly to the black keyboard and hovers over the "enter" button. Then we spring the trap.
Eckersley's BitTorrent controller flickers for a second, showing that his computer is "seeding" our file to the Melbourne computer. Then everything stops. The transmission fails, and to an untrained eye, the problem appears to be with BitTorrent.
But Eckersley is running a Net monitor application called Wireshark, which works like an online customs officer checking the packets going out of the computer here and into the one in Melbourne. What Eckersley finds is damning. Someone or something has interceded in the transmission and told the computers to stop talking.
And that something, experts have concluded, is Comcast.
The experiment Eckersley and I ran replicates private and public versions that emerged last fall through an Associated Press story. That story confirmed what many in software circles knew for most of 2007: Comcast has been looking at its users' Web traffic and secretly blocking some of the Internet, namely BitTorrent uploads, to users outside Comcast's network. The Electronic Frontier Foundation alleges that Comcast blocks BitTorrent with a classic hacker technique called "spoofing," where the hacker poses as someone he isn't, in this case another user. Eckersley describes it as if he and I were having a phone conversation, and then halfway through Comcast interrupts us and in my voice tells him to hang up, and in his voice tells me the same thing.
The news of Comcast's filtering is now national exhibit A in the debate about Net neutrality, the vague concept that all data is created equal and the Internet should continue to have no favorites. Should Verizon be allowed to block text messages from abortion-rights groups? Should AT&T be permitted to censor Pearl Jam Webcasts critical of George W. Bush? Should cable companies be allowed to charge more to sites like Google for priority on the information superhighway? These are all Net neutrality issues, flavors of the same simple question: Who owns the Internet, and what gets to be on it? Some say "the people," and some say "no one." Meanwhile, the companies that have spent millions laying cable and fiber-optic lines have their own territorial claims.
Net neutrality hawks in Washington, D.C., intend to make an example of Comcast, and have taken their case to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
"If the FCC permits Comcast to block applications and content, it is burdening the First Amendment freedoms of users," states an FCC complaint filed against Comcast on Nov. 1, 2007, by consumer tech-rights groups Free Press and Public Knowledge. "This burden constitutes irreparable harm. Internet discrimination likely costs society billions in lost innovation in applications [and] lost consumer value in garnering products and content of their choice."
Locally, the news has also spawned a class-action lawsuit against Comcast. Marin resident John Hart is the lead plaintiff in the suit, which accuses the Internet service provider of fraud — that it advertised "unfettered access" to the Internet and then secretly blocked file-sharing. The suit estimates damages to be higher than $5 million.
The imbroglio has also shone a red-hot spotlight on BitTorrent, a 65-employee-and-growing tech company based in downtown San Francisco. To BitTorrent, data blocking represents more than an infringement on the free flow of information — it threatens the company's core business.
The guy who ushered in a paradigm shift in media distribution doesn't carry himself like some puffed-up media mogul. BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen stands maybe 5 feet 9 in sneakers, jeans, and a faded black Buckethead T-shirt. Three-day-old stubble shades the 32-year-old's boyish face, and he cracks an easy smile when talking about his invention. Cohen is also a lover of juggling, scooters, and especially puzzles. It's probably the kid in him that gave him the audacity to rewrite the rules of the Internet.
BitTorrent has grown from 10 million downloads in 2005 to 160 million downloads in 2007, thanks to Cohen's big innovation — swarm downloading of segmented files. It's cheaper, faster, and simply better than anything that came before.