Ever since Napster found its way into every college dorm room in 1999, the defenders of intellectual property have been perplexed at how to best deal with peer-to-peer file transfer. Last week's news that Comcast's servers were interfering with BitTorrent traffic
may have come as a surprise to some, but given that few companies have been willing to acknowledge the legal uses for P2P, it shouldn't be too much of a shock.
What strikes me is the fact that in the United Kingdom, it is actually the ISPs who are opposed to banning file-sharing and the lawmakers who have been pushing it. According to Broadband Reports
, a representative from the service providers union suggested that, "ISPs are no more able to inspect and filter every single packet passing across their network than the Post Office is able to open every envelope." While this argument seems somewhat weak given Comcast's ability to infiltrate BitTorrent, it is true that file-sharers will always be one step ahead of the regulators, and I support their commitment toward an open internet.
Piracy is certainly big business, but it is also the way of life for many people who don't earn any financial gain when they share their favorite songs and videos for all the world to enjoy. File transfer technologies such as BitTorrent have a legitimate and legal use, and the suggestion that they should be banned by the British government, or hindered by Comcast, is the same argument that tried to kill the VCR in the early 80s. All technologies can be used in a variety of ways, and if we allow those in power to destroy anything that can be used illegally both technology and innovation will suffer at a far greater rate than any damages that file-sharing could ever inflict on the entertainment industry.
It's comforting to see that British ISPs have voiced their opposition to the proposed legislation, and it's unclear how many lawmakers are pushing the bill in the first place. What is clear is that net neutrality is under assault in the United States and that it is the ISPs and not congress behind the attack.
Ironically, the most popular argument against net neutrality, that the internet will be overloaded with content, can best be mitigated through peer-to-peer technologies. If content is distributed over a series of servers than the demand will also be distributed and the internet will be able to handle a much larger amount of data.
Then again, sometimes the argument being vocalized is nothing more than a smoke screen. The internet has allowed media makers, large and small, to compete on a more even playing field. If the drive toward abandoning net neutrality is really about seizing the power that large corporations continue to hold onto on all other media platforms, then stomping out BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies may serve to legitimize concerns that the internet will someday grow beyond its own capacity and collapse under the weight.
No one knows which side will win the battle over net neutrality, but we all know that certain content will become scarcer if the media conglomerates have their way. When the amount of information available is curtailed, it is the public that suffers and therefore it is our civic obligation to do everything in our power to defend an open internet.