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

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008
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Page 3 of 4

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.

About The Author

David Downs

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