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Comcast denies monkeying with BitTorrent traffic

Rumors have been floating around that Comcast is filtering peer-to-peer BitTorrent traffic, which is often used to distribute pirated movies.

Comcast on Tuesday denied rumors that the company is filtering BitTorrent traffic running over its network.

BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol used to distribute large data files such as video. The protocol has been used widely throughout the Internet to distribute pirated movies. And sites that use the protocol have been targeted by the movie industry to stop the illegal distribution of copyrighted video.

Broadband providers have also not been big fans of BitTorrent because the use of the peer-to-peer protocol can clog networks with huge files. The blog TorrentFreak claims that several Internet Service Providers have been "throttling" or limiting BitTorrent traffic on their networks for the past two years. And last week, the blog accused Comcast of going even further to limit the use of BitTorrent on its network.

The blog claimed that some Comcast users had noticed that their BitTorrent transfers were being cut off and that they experienced a significant decrease in download speeds.

Over the past few days, these claims have been widely circulated throughout the Web. But when I spoke to Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas earlier today, he flat-out denied that the company was filtering or "shaping" any traffic on its network. He said the company doesn't actively look at the applications or content that its customers download over the network. But Comcast does reserve the right to cut off service to customers who abuse the network by using too much bandwidth.

So what constitutes "too much" bandwidth? Douglas didn't specify exact figures, but he gave a few examples that would likely get subscribers into trouble. For example, someone who sends more than 13 million e-mails a month, which breaks down to about 430,000 e-mails a day or 18,000 e-mails an hour, would likely get a letter or phone call from Comcast about excessive use. Sending roughly 250,000 photos or downloading more than 30,000 songs a month might also raise an eyebrow at Comcast, he said.

"More than 99.99 percent of our customers use the residential high-speed Internet service as intended, which includes downloading and sharing video, photos and other rich media," he said. "But Comcast has a responsibility to provide these customers with a superior experience, and to address any excessive or abusive activities usage issues that may adversely impact that experience."

In the rare instances the company has to enforce its policy, Douglas said that Comcast contacts subscribers to work out the issue. But he firmly reiterated that the company doesn't filter or throttle back traffic.

The issue of shaping traffic or blocking certain applications is a hot one and goes right to the heart of the Net Neutrality debate, which has been raging for more than a year. Broadband providers claim that their networks have finite resources and they must be allowed to identify traffic in some manner to set quality of service parameters to ensure users get certain levels of service. But consumer advocates say that the network ought to be neutral and traffic should flow freely to ensure that all applications are accessible.

Personally, I can see the merits of both arguments. It makes sense that broadband providers would want to protect their network assets. But it seems like a slippery slope in terms of how far we allow these service providers to go. And I can see why consumer advocates might be concerned that AT&T or Comcast might block applications like Google's YouTube, which could potentially compete with their own services.

There's also the issue of privacy. If operators are identifying applications and protocols to ensure good quality of service, couldn't they also identify the content of my e-mails or see which songs or movies I downloaded?