Last week the Associated Press reported that “Comcast Corp. actively interferes with attempts by some of its high-speed Internet subscribers to share files online, a move that runs counter to the tradition of treating all types of Net traffic equally.” Specifically, the AP said that the company was blocking the ability of subscribers to upload files using the BitTorrent file sharing network.
And no, it's not about blocking illegal file-sharing.
This has nothing to do with copyright enforcement. While BitTorrent can be used illegally to share copyrighted files, it is also used by many to legally share all sorts of digital files. The company behind BitTorrent has even announced deals with major TV and film studios to use its peer to peer technology to speed up the delivery of media to customers. Some software developers are also using BitTorrent to efficiently distribute very large files.
What is it about?
Comcast has not officially commented on these allegations other than to tell the AP and others that it needs to protect its network from a very small cadre of abusive customers who use far more than their share of Internet bandwidth. Responding to a question from a moderator at a panel at last weeks’ Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Amy Banse, president of Comcast Interactive Media, reportedly told the audience that the company is trying to guard against the .01% of “what we call excessive use.”
Ok, those of you who oppose Net Neutrality, I can already hear some of your arguments. Comcast is guarding against excessive use? Who decides what excessive use is? I use Time Warner myself, and I pay for a certain upload/download speed (which I rarely ever get to use at full speed, what with cable internet being structured the way it is). As far as I'm aware, there is no cap on the amount of data I can download per month. So if I'm downloading and uploading simultaneously all day every day, there shouldn't be anything wrong with that. What's actually going on is that the cable company is selling the same bandwidth over and over again to multiple users. That means we can't all be on it at the same time or it'll get completely clogged up and slowed down. And while I would hate for someone to be on my node downloading all day and never letting me use my fair share of bandwidth, I don't think it's an equitable solution for my cable company to simply cut that person off.
Not that they shouldn't enforce some kind of equitable distribution of bandwidth. The first solution is that they shouldn't put more of us on a node than the node can handle if we all decide to use it. That may create some loss for the company as slack time on the node means they invested more in infrastructure than they absolutely had to to simply provide us all internet access, but I'm not as concerned by that as I am by the fact that I paid for a service I may not get (my 7Mbps speed, that is). The second solution is to simply downgrade one of these power-user's speed to make up the difference to the rest of us.
Having said all that, the real, foremost problem here is that Comcast was specifically targeting BitTorrent users. Although in practical terms your ISP has to know where you traffic is coming from, it really shouldn't know that. Furthermore it should certainly not have the right to act on that. I don't care what anyone is downloading from BitTorrent, legal or illegal, porn or the cure for cancer; Comcast has no right to decide what traffic is allowed or not. These users paid for access to the internet just like I did, and they should be able to use their connections as they see fit.
Furthermore, before those libertarian arguers come to the fore, we are all hostages. No, you can't really shop around for an ISP that'll give you a contract that guarantees you a connection speed and never to monitor your internet traffic. None of them promise that. And even if there are some that do, I've got two choices in my area. One is dubious and the other is just as dubious. If he wants to, Xanthippas can tell you more about how contracts that you have no alternative to are perfectly acceptable to American law.
Let's see, what else has happened that inclines us to support Net Neutrality? Let's, see, AT&T has censored broadcasts and performances, most notably Pearl Jam; AT&T also reserves the right to cancel service of anyone who criticizes AT&T (although I hear they're going to change that language) as does Verizon; Verizon recently had a debacle over blocking pro-choice text messaging, and of course you've also had stories of ISPs handing info over to the Feds without any kind of warrant!
That last example may not strictly fall under Net Neutrality, but it does go to show that ISPs are none too careful with your privacy. No matter what your objections to Net Neutrality might be at this point, the lack of legislation directly contributes to these kinds of situations. It must be remedied, and soon.