Comcast and BitTorrent agree to 'collaborate'

Cable operator agrees to manage traffic in a way that doesn't single out peer-to-peer file sharing for degradation, but Net neutrality proponents say firm rules are still needed.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
5 min read

Update 10:15 a.m. PDT: Comments from Rep. Edward Markey and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin added.

It's official: Comcast and BitTorrent are calling a truce.

Ever since the cable giant admitted to disrupting file-sharing traffic based on the BitTorrent protocol, a very public debate has erupted over what constitutes appropriate "network management" by Internet service providers, and with it, a resurgence of calls for Net neutrality rules that would prohibit such practices.

But as companies are wont to do when regulators are breathing down their necks (read: the Federal Communications Commission), the companies announced that they're going to become collaborators. Whether the deal is enough to satisfy policymakers scrutinizing Comcast's behavior, however, remains to be seen, as it's already drawing some measure of skepticism.

The "collaborative effort" doesn't mean that Comcast will give up on managing the way traffic flows through its network.

Rather, Comcast said it will work on reconfiguring its networks so that, by year's end, it manages data in a "protocol agnostic" way. Comcast has confessed to "delaying" uploads to the BitTorrent protocol at peak congestion times, but the new process would apparently involve managing traffic based on how much bandwidth consumers use, rather than what sort of applications they're running.

It's not clear what levels of bandwidth use would trigger such steps. As a Comcast vice president said during a recent FCC hearing about his company's network management practices, the cable operator tells its customers what broadband speeds they can expect, but it doesn't spell out how much bandwidth they're allotted. Instead, it says that subscribers are entitled to use the service in a way that doesn't degrade other subscribers' experiences. (In an interview with News.com's Declan McCullagh on Thursday morning, Comcast Vice President Joe Waz said no "bandwidth caps" are planned and offered some more details on the company's plans.)

BitTorrent, which touts its expertise in networking protocols, says it's ready to help Comcast manage traffic in a "protocol agnostic" way so that no particular application is singled out. (Pictured here is the interface for BitTorrent 6.0.3 for Windows.) BitTorrent

BitTorrent Chief Technology Officer Eric Klinker said in a statement that the idea is to develop "techniques that the Internet community will find to be more transparent."

Comcast has been working on this "technique" for several months, said Tony Werner, the company's chief technology officer. It plans to publish the technique and refine it based on feedback and testing.

In turn, BitTorrent also plans to work with Internet service providers, other technology companies, and the Internet Engineering Task Force, a nonprofit standards body, to develop ways to optimize file swapping on networks like Comcast's. It also plans to publish its work in forums and Internet standards communities so that other application developers can get a glimpse of what's going on.

As News.com's Jon Skillings noted earlier Thursday, the makings of a Comcast-BitTorrent truce seems to have been in the works for a while, as evidenced by recent comments BitTorrent CEO Doug Walker made to News.com's Maggie Reardon.

And the idea of Internet service providers attempting to embrace peer-to-peer applications also isn't new. Verizon Communications has recently touted its participation in a working group that's trying to formulate a way to route peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic more "intelligently."

A strike against Net neutrality rules?
The companies' announcement may not do much to change the FCC's ongoing inquiry into what constitutes "reasonable" network management practices--and, specifically, whether it should find fault with Comcast's special treatment of file-sharing traffic.

Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has hinted that some action may need to be taken--specifically, requiring Comcast and others to be more transparent to their subscribers about their practices. He continued that refrain in a statement issued Thursday, saying he was concerned that "Comcast has not made clear when they will stop this discriminatory practice."

"While it may take time to implement its preferred new traffic management technique, it is not at all obvious why Comcast couldn't stop its current practice of arbitrarily blocking its broadband customers from using certain applications," he said. "Comcast should provide its broadband customers as well as the Commission with a commitment of a date certain by when it will stop this practice."

The commission plans to continue examining the issue during an April 17 hearing at Stanford University, Martin said, and to weigh "the important ability for network managers to block the distribution of illegal content, including pirated movies and music and child pornography."

"Comcast should provide its broadband customers as well as the Commission with a commitment of a date certain by when it will stop this practice."
--Kevin Martin, FCC chairman

Meanwhile, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement that the agreement never would have occurred without the FCC's playing a "proactive role" in the situation.

"I am confident that, through this process, the FCC can come up with clear rules of the road that will benefit American consumers and provide much-needed certainty to both network operators and Internet entrepreneurs," he said in a statement.

Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, for his part, issued a statement commending the deal, which he said "obviates the need for any further government intrusion into this matter."

In Congress, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said he continues to believe a Net neutrality bill he proposed earlier this year is necessary. That proposal, unlike his previous efforts, wouldn't prescribe particular regulations, but it does outline expectations that Internet service providers refrain from "unreasonable discriminatory favoritism."

Markey, who leads a House of Representatives telecommunications and Internet panel, said he was pleased to hear about the Comcast-BitTorrent agreement but plans to "monitor the ongoing discussions to see if they result in a material change in Comcast's controversial network management techniques and whether any future changes adequately protect innovation, openness, and consumer choice on the Internet."

Proponents of Net neutrality regulations, which would prohibit network operators from prioritizing Internet content, said the Comcast-BitTorrent collaboration does nothing to blunt the need for such rules. One such group, Public Knowledge, went so far as to call the agreement "irrelevant" to that debate.

"The FCC has the responsibility to protect the rights of consumers against discriminatory network management practices," said Public Knowledge's president, Gigi Sohn. "Any future agreements in the private sector do not change that reality, particularly if the companies involved reach agreements that work specifically with some technologies or network companies and not with others."

The cable industry called the deal a win for consumers.

"Government interference in the development of this market could easily foreclose or otherwise prevent the emergence of efforts such as this one," said Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, "and it could never anticipate the kinds of consumer-responsive approaches that further improve and enhance the user experience, including efforts to respect the rights of copyright owners and to fight piracy."