Thanks to BitTorrrent, Net neutrality debate reignites

Following claims of Comcast blocking file-sharing traffic, debate over whether to create laws to keep the Internet open has resurfaced.

Marguerite Reardon
Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
5 min read
The controversial issue of Net neutrality is surfacing again amid allegations that phone companies and cable operators are throttling BitTorrent traffic and perhaps even censoring politically charged language.

Net neutrality, as it's often called, is the principle that all content transmitted over a cable or a phone company's network be treated equally and without preference. Last year, several consumer groups and Internet companies banded together to lobby Congress to pass a law to protect this principle. But those attempts failed.

Now Net neutrality is back in the political spotlight after a string of potential abuses have come to light. Last month, the Associated Press reported that it had carried out experiments across the country proving that Comcast prevented some users from uploading content to peer-to-peer networks including BitTorrent. Comcast disputed the results.

Over the summer, during a Webcast of the Lollapalooza concert in Chicago, AT&T bleeped portions of the Pearl Jam song "Daughter," in which singer Eddie Vedder altered lyrics to include anti-Bush sentiments. Other bands had also been censored on AT&T's Webcasts, including the John Butler Trio and Flaming Lips. AT&T admitted that these remarks had been deleted, but the company said these were mistakes made by an overzealous contractor hired to monitor the performances for obscene language.

Cell phone companies have also been accused of limiting access to their networks. In September, Verizon Wireless denied a request from an abortion rights group to use its mobile network for a new text-messaging campaign. After The New York Times wrote an article about the denial, Verizon changed its mind.

The Net neutrality issue has even crept into the 2008 presidential race with Sen. Barack Obama publicly saying earlier this week that the issue would rank high on his list of priorities in the first year of his administration. Obama added he would make Net neutrality support among appointed Federal Communications Commissioners a priority.

The broadband market is really at an inflection point. And it's important to establish laws now because it will essentially set the ground rules for how the market will play out in the future.
--Tim Wu, professor, Columbia University Law School

"The broadband market is really at an inflection point," said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University Law School and a supporter of Net neutrality legislation. "And it's important to establish laws now because it will essentially set the ground rules for how the market will play out in the future."

Some supporters of Net neutrality claim that a 2005 Supreme Court decision that changed the regulatory environment for DSL and cable modem service gave too much freedom and control to the Internet service providers.

In the Brand X case the court refused to recognize cable modem service as a "telecommunications" service. Instead, it classified it as an "information" service. This ruling meant that cable operators were not bound to a requirement in the telecommunications service regulation that forced phone companies to provide open access to competitors on their networks. To keep cable and phone companies on equal footing, the FCC changed the classification of DSL service to also be an information service.

Net neutrality supporters say that this change in regulation gives cable operators and phone companies too much control over what applications and content travel across their networks. Large phone companies and cable operators, however, say that no new laws or regulations are needed to explicitly grant protection for Net neutrality. Instead, they believe that a free market is the best protection against abuse. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin agrees that no new regulation is needed.

But Net neutrality supporters point to these recent incidents as evidence that something needs to be done. The most glaring accusation of abuse is Comcast, which critics say is filtering and blocking BitTorrent peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic. Sites that use the protocol have been targeted by the movie industry to stop the illegal distribution of copyrighted video. But there are also many legal uses of BitTorrent.

The problem for broadband operators is the protocol eats up huge amounts of bandwidth. To keep their networks moving smoothly, operators have installed equipment from companies such as Sandvine and Ellacoya that inspects packets to identify the type of application being used. Based on policies established by the provider, the traffic can be blocked or limited.

Earlier this year, bloggers noted that BitTorrent sessions appeared to be targeted and blocked by Comcast's service. Comcast repeatedly denied these claims. The Associated Press did its own test and reported last month that several Comcast broadband connections using BitTorrent had been slowed or blocked.

"We engage in reasonable network management to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience, and we do so consistently with FCC policy."
--David L. Cohen, executive vice president, Comcast

The SavetheInternet.com coalition, along with professors from Yale, Harvard, and Stanford law schools, have filed a complaint and petition with the FCC against Comcast asking the agency to take immediate action to stop Comcast's practices.

Comcast still denies claims that it is blocking any traffic. "Comcast does not, has not, and will not block any Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services, and no one has demonstrated otherwise," David L. Cohen, executive vice president for Comcast, said in a statement. "We engage in reasonable network management to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience, and we do so consistently with FCC policy."

A Comcast representative said when it detects congestion in the network due to peer-to-peer traffic such as BitTorrent, it slows down that traffic in the network to make room for other kinds of traffic like Web surfing. The management mechanism is only used for the BitTorrent or other peer-to-peer traffic that is causing the congestion.

But in its filings, the SavetheInternet.com Coalition contends that the way in which Comcast manages its network deceives consumers and also violates the open-access principles outlined by the FCC.

Specifically, the group claims that Comcast is using a technique called "spoofing" to slow down or block the BitTorrent traffic. The way it works is that after a BitTorrent session has been established, Comcast interrupts the session like an operator interrupting a phone call who informs both parties that the connection has been disconnected. But instead of breaking into the connection as Comcast, the company pretends to be a customer participating in the BitTorrent session who is simply ending the session.

Net neutrality supporters say neither Comcast nor any other service provider should selectively limit any particular type of traffic. "No one is suggesting that there is no room for bandwidth management," Wu said. "But right now the operators can pick and choose the applications they want on their networks."

Simple quality-of-service networking technologies that limit the amount of bandwidth that each individual user gets could be the answer to this problem, say experts. But Wu believes the issue is not really about bandwidth management. It's about who controls the Internet.

"The whole Net neutrality issue is really about a power struggle," he said. "It all comes down to a scenario where the phone companies and cable operators want to call all the shots about which applications enter the market. And while that may be good for them, I'd argue it's very bad for the country."