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

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008
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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.

About The Author

David Downs

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