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BitTorrent, Comcast, EFF Antipathetic To FCC Regulation of P2P Traffic 

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008
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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.

The traditional way to get MP3s or video files required finding them directly on a specific Web site or computer and downloading them from there. This is how famed file-sharing program Napster worked. Users downloaded and installed Napster, searched for the music they wanted, and then hooked into someone else's computer for one-to-one downloads. The process could take hours.

"Napster wasn't very good," says Cohen, kicking his shoes off in the ninth-floor conference room overlooking the Transbay Terminal project. The place seems oddly quiet for midday at an office in the city: Most programmers work from home, or work nights. The smell of taco-truck cuisine drifts down the blue-carpeted halls. "I set a personal goal for myself, which was [to create] a program where one person could share a file and ten thousand people could jump on it simultaneously, and the thing would work," he laughs.

So Cohen wrote a protocol, or language, to enable this. If you go to www.bittorrent.com and download the program, you get a small (1.4 megabyte) file to install on your computer. This program mimics an air traffic controller. Tell it what file you want by plugging in its "tracker," and BitTorrent automatically scours the Internet for not just one person with that file, but thousands.

Trying to get the whole copy of, say, Justice's hit song "D.A.N.C.E." takes only seconds. BitTorrent arranges for your computer to take a sliver of the song from everyone who has it, all at once. The second you start to receive "D.A.N.C.E.," BitTorrent switches gears and lets other computers know that you have some of the club anthem to share. Paradoxically, all downloaders instantly become uploaders, or "seeders." With the BitTorrent paradox, the higher the demand for a file, the higher the supply — because everyone is immediately sharing the segments they receive with people who don't yet have them. Downloads are 35 to 50 percent faster, and distribution costs for artists plummet, because fans chip in bandwidth to get the files out.

The first versions of BitTorrent began circulating among Cohen's peers in 2001. He used free porn as an incentive to download the bittorrent.exe program, but porn lovers are wary of files labeled ".exe," because such executable files can kill a computer with hacker programs.

The earliest adopters of BitTorrent turned out to be Deadheads. The 1960s jam-band legend the Grateful Dead has a fervent fan community of bootleg concert traders, known as "tapers," that ranks among the oldest, most robust file-sharing networks. The Dead always encouraged their devotees to plug into their live soundboards. Such recordings comprise the currency of an international, multigenerational taper economy possibly hundreds of thousands strong. Deadheads used to trade cassettes, but live recordings of the Dead quickly piggybacked onto the Net because so many Bay Area tapers doubled as computer geeks.

Cohen says he modeled the Bit-Torrent interface on taper mailing lists. "It was so painful to see how they did this," he says. "One guy would say, 'Hey, I have this recording. The first 10 people to ask for it will get a password to download it.' It was so slow. I wanted it to be automatic."

After Cohen got BitTorrent up and running, Deadheads were able to use it to find and download every live Dead show in existence on the Internet.

Cohen says the trusting taper community led the way until the anime crowd discovered BitTorrent to share comics across the globe, and the program spread rapidly. Soon after its release, Cohen says he went into hiding, fearful of the monster he had created. "I was scared," he recalls. "People were saying I was personally going to be sued out of existence."

Cohen was concerned the public would see BitTorrent as the next Napster, instead of as something too useful to be killed by copyright law, like the Xerox copy machine: "Deep down I knew it was more like a Xerox than a Napster, but I didn't know what would happen," he says.

By 2005, Cohen remained untouched and techies had found legitimate uses for BitTorrent, such as distributing videogame software — cheaply.

Today, BitTorrent is a tech darling that boasts deals with more than 50 content providers — including PBS, 20th Century Fox, and MTV — for distribution of television shows like 24, and albums by Ween and artists on the Sub Pop label.

BitTorrent now offers streaming video on demand, and the company is making a viable play at being the distribution method of choice for all Internet content.

As it turned out, the biggest threat to BitTorrent's growth wasn't copyright infringement. The biggest threat was the growth itself.

Comcast's techs failed to imagine a world where every customer was also uploading files to the Internet. So Comcast — now the nation's second-largest ISP — built connections based on the cable TV model with large downstreams for pushing content, but small upstreams.

File-sharing, or peer-to-peer, traffic involves such uploads. Today, Internet industry sources estimate peer-to-peer traffic eats up anywhere from 37 percent to as much as 95 percent of bandwidth at any given moment. BitTorrent accounts for a sizable share of that traffic.

A 2007 study by professors at Clemson University offered solid proof that as few as 15 BitTorrent users on a Comcast-like network could degrade downloads and uploads for everyone else, making streaming videos stutter, or causing other delays. The popularity of BitTorrent, combined with video-streaming sites like YouTube, now clogs up the Internet, Comcast says. That's why the company says it performs "traffic management" to keep the lanes open for everyone.

Comcast has repeatedly denied that it can "block" BitTorrent traffic. Instead, a spokesman says all ISPs "manage" Net traffic to ensure all customers can receive e-mail and surf the Web. Peer-to-peer users of BitTorrent are a bandwidth-hungry minority, Comcast contends.

Cohen agrees. In fact, it's something he predicted when he first thought up BitTorrent. "My whole idea was, 'Let's use up a lot of bandwidth,'" he laughs. "I had a friend who said, 'Well, ISPs won't like that.' And I said, 'Why should I care?'"

But while Cohen and the Electronic Frontier Foundation concede Comcast has a legitimate gripe about BitTorrent's hogging of bandwidth, it's how Comcast goes about dealing with the bandwidth hogs that pisses them off. They say Comcast uses a Canadian company called Sandvine to look deep into its traffic and zap the BitTorrent parts while spoofing other users.

"Whoever came up with it, I have to hand it to him," Cohen says. "It's well thought out."

Such indiscriminate targeting of one protocol goes against years of Net neutrality practices, Comcast's critics say. "BitTorrent is using the same open standards as everyone else to get the job done," EFF attorney Fred von Lohmann says. "It's none of Comcast's business what application is running."

It's not the practice that's the problem, others say; it's the obfuscation.

Free Press' FCC complaint states, "Amid online rumors and reports, Comcast lied to both the press and the EFF, claiming it did not interfere with peer-to-peer traffic. Lying to the public about consumer allegations is inherently deceptive."

Comcast's actions also create an uncertain environment for developing the next YouTube or BitTorrent. "If this goes unheeded, the word will be out: 'The ISPs can kill your business,'" von Lohmann says.

One business that faces death by data discrimination is Vuze of San Jose, which uses BitTorrent to distribute video from its content providers. In a November petition to the FCC, Vuze executives claim that if Comcast blocks their distribution method, Comcast's customers can't just switch, because cable and phone companies effectively have duopolies or monopolies on high-speed service.

It's like starting a trucking company under the assumption that the roads are open. When the shipments don't make it, your business plan is ruined.

Despite the outcry over the violation of Net neutrality principles, Comcast is breaking no laws. That's because no "laws" have been written. The only thing governing the Internet is a paragraph on the FCC's Web site called a "Policy Statement" that says consumers are entitled to access and run applications and benefit from competition, but that the network is subject to "reasonable network management" by the ISPs.

It's this paragraph in PDF form that Eckersley and I tried to send when we got jammed. And it's the phrase "reasonable network management" that is up for grabs.

In a prepared statement, Comcast executive vice president David Cohen says the company is abiding by current rules. "We believe our practices are in accordance with the FCC's policy statement on the Internet, where the Commission clearly recognized that reasonable network management is necessary for the good of all customers," Cohen said. "Comcast does not, has not, and will not block any Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services."

A Comcast spokesman added that the company delays BitTorrent traffic when there's congestion, but everything eventually goes through: "It's like stoplights. Without them there would be anarchy and gridlock."

But Comcast critics believe that argument is meaningless. "Comcast could 'delay' applications until the year 2009, or 3009, without violating the principle of the Policy Statement, even though consumers would turn off their computers (or die) before 'running' the application," says the Free Press FCC complaint against Comcast. Free Press requests an injunction prohibiting Comcast from blocking data transfers, and is also demanding $195,000 in fines per Comcast customer.

On January 8, the FCC formally opened public comments through February 13 on Free Press' complaint. Simultaneously, other Net neutrality hawks are pushing the FCC to rewrite its rules and regulate ISPs like Comcast more closely. Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, says the digital consumer rights organization wants the FCC to ban data blocking. "We're going to make this a big deal this year," she says.

Sohn may have an ally in FCC chairman Kevin Martin. At the Consumer Electronics Expo in Vegas this month, Martin promised a full and speedy investigation into ISP blocking, saying such blocking of apps like BitTorrent is one of the FCC's top priorities for 2008.

Not everyone is thrilled about the FCC getting involved. The EFF, BitTorrent, Comcast, and industry experts cringe at regulation, or, God forbid, some lobbyist-smudged bill from Congress.

"We're of two minds on this," EFF attorney von Lohmann says. "While we agree with the principles of Net neutrality, we're deeply riven about how to proceed. The idea of the government regulating the Internet gives some people pause. We are not nearly so sanguine about it."

Some Net scientists say any new regulations would be based largely on guesswork. According to Josh Polterock at the UC San Diego Supercomputer Center, much of the Net's infrastructure is in private hands. These companies guard their specifications lest they give up competitive advantages, trade secrets, or security risks. The public doesn't "even have an idea of what the Internet is, let alone how or where to take its pulse and set bandwidth guidelines," he says.

According to some researchers, what little testable evidence we have predicts traffic gridlock on the Net by 2010. Without infrastructure improvements, experts say the Net could look more and more like Bay Area car traffic — bumper to bumper at its peak, with unexplainable pockets of congestion around the clock.

BitTorrent's creator thinks the government should be adding more high-capacity fiber-optic lines to ease traffic. "We need to see the Net for what it is — a public utility," Bram Cohen says. "If you're going to dig the road up anyway, you might as well lay a conduit this size [he makes a fist] and put in enough fiber for the next hundred years. Then you'd just need an 'Office of Divvying It Out,' whose only real mission is to make sure no one hogs this unsaturatable resource."

Cohen says that while Comcast filtering hurts his business model, he sees an opportunity to work with ISPs in a friendly way so BitTorrent doesn't swamp Net traffic. His engineers intend to make the company's software more bandwidth-conscious this year.

Cohen is even a Comcast customer at his home in Marin. His biggest gripe with the service? The DVR sucks compared to TiVo. It's clunky, slow, and it crashes: "The quality of the DVR exemplifies the problem with the whole product," he laughs.

About The Author

David Downs

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