BitTorrent and other companies that provide bulk file distribution lashed out at Comcast on Thursday, saying the throttling of peer-to-peer connections is a naked attempt to harm video services that compete with cable TV.
Comcast's throttling "not only affects BitTorrent but also affects the hundreds of companies that use BitTorrent technology," Eric Klinker, the company's chief technology officer, told reporters on Thursday. Klinker's comments come a day after Comcast defended the practice in a lengthy filing with the Federal Communications Commission.
While the BitTorrent protocol has long been used for piratical purposes, the company formed to commercialize it has signed up a slew of business partners from the entertainment industry that use it to reduce their bandwidth costs while distributing video. Those partners include Warner Bros., Viacom, PBS, and Paramount Pictures.
What that means is that Comcast is slamming the brakes on perfectly legal television watching that happens to take place over the Internet--leaving it open to allegations of anticompetitive activity. As more TV watching shifts online, the argument goes, Comcast will lose its enviably lucrative position as the content gatekeeper for cable TV and become one of many providers of a commodity broadband service with slimmer margins.
"It becomes more troubling when the network operator is a competitor," said Jay Monahan, the general counsel of Vuze, which in part initiated the FCC proceeding. "Comcast is a competitor to all of us who deliver high-quality video content."
Vuze uses the BitTorrent protocol and a client called Azureus to distribute video from partners such as Showtime, A&E, and the BBC. (In an concession that BitTorrent means more than just transferring pirated material, Comcast's brief to the FCC this week doesn't even mention the word "copyright" or "piracy.")
From Comcast's perspective, it's merely trying to set some reasonable limits on its most bandwidth-consuming customers--thereby avoiding having all of its customers' connections grind to a halt because of BitTorrent's insatiable appetite. It notes that peer-to-peer applications can consume up to 80 percent of a network's capacity and says throttling represents reasonable network management practices.
Comcast admits that it targets BitTorrent, but it denies that it throttles based on the content of the BitTorrent streams. "It's all based on the amount of uploading traffic in the area," said Sena Fitzmaurice, a spokeswoman for Comcast. "We don't know what that traffic is. When traffic has gotten to the point that it begins to degrade the experience of other users in that area, we have to manage uploads." (Comcast says it doesn't manage--that is, throttle--BitTorrent downloads.)
An electronic arms race
The Comcast vs. BitTorrent battle is fast becoming a full-blown electronic arms race. One way to try to defeat throttling is to encrypt the individual Internet Protocol datagrams so a network provider may not even know that BitTorrent is being used.
"We've been able to successfully avoid any significant impact through our own evasive maneuvers, such as encryption," Monahan of Vuze said. But, he added, "I have no confidence that we and our colleagues in the space will be able to do this indefinitely."
Comcast's Fitzmaurice says this arms race is one reason her employer hasn't provided many details publicly about how it detects BitTorrent streams and how it throttles them. "They're constantly finding ways around the way the network is being managed," she said.
Another application that relies on BitTorrent, Miro, can automatically download videos from channels based on RSS feeds. Miro, previously called Democracy Player, has Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows clients. (Here's CNET's review).
Nicholas Reville, a co-founder of the Participatory Culture Foundation behind Miro, said on Thursday: "The filtering we're seeing from ISPs is directly affecting our users...We absolutely must have strong Net neutrality legislation."
That was a common refrain from BitTorrent-the-company and the constellation of start-ups that rely on BitTorrent-the-protocol. They're rallying around new legislation introduced this week by Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of a House of Representatives Internet and telecommunications panel.
At the moment, the BitTorrent alliance probably does not have the law on its side. The House of Representatives rejected extensive Net neutrality rules nearly two years ago, so the closest thing to formal rules are informal FCC broadband principles (PDF) saying consumers should be able to run applications they want--"subject to reasonable network management."
Which is, of course, exactly what Comcast says it's doing.
Markey's new bill (PDF) is not nearly as regulatory as previous Net neutrality efforts. It doesn't give the FCC unchecked authority over the Internet, for instance. Instead, it requires the FCC to initiate a "proceeding," hold public events, and provide a report back to Congress.
That may not be enough to satisfy the BitTorrent alliance--don't be surprised if you eventually see a Markey bill version 2.0 that's more regulatory--but from their perspective, it would help provide a far better experience than today's.