Comcast’s Traffic Jam

A storm’s brewing throughout the Net over whether ISPs should block or hinder access to some applications while giving others the green light.

At issue is Comcast Corp. and peer-to-peer file-sharing applications. Comcast says it doesn’t block access to P2P software clients. However, Associated Press nationwide tests suggest otherwise – that the ISP is actively blocking BitTorrent downloads.

Of course, P2P carries a lot of baggage. Long the scorn of the recording, film and TV industries, P2P is often cited by those industries as the major conduit of copyright-infringing material.

But those same industries blaming P2P for piracy are also looking at file-sharing as a low-cost distribution channel. Having thousands of P2P-connected computers hosting your content for distribution is a lot cheaper than posting your song, film or software product on your own server and making people line up for the download.

The issue isn’t just about ISPs hindering P2P downloading and uploading. It’s also about "Net neutrality," the concept that all traffic should be treated equally and no individual, company or organization should have a fast track to the information superhighway.

Net neutrality became an issue when tentative plans were drawn up in 2005 that would, if initiated, result in major Web sites paying for a fast lane for shipping data. Under these plans, a heavily trafficked site (Google, for example) could pay extra for the privilege of having a faster channel for its services.

While not actually a law, the Net neutrality concept calls for all data to be treated as equal, so a digital music stream from Rhapsody should be treated no differently than a video clip from CNN or a download from a major gaming site. However, signs suggest that all data isn’t treated equally when it passes through Comcast’s network.

Comcast, the No. 2 Internet provider in the United States, says it "does not block access to any applications, including BitTorrent," one of the most popular P2P software applications.

But a series of tests conducted by The Associated Press discovered that, while Comcast doesn’t necessarily block downloads via BitTorrent, it does block or limit uploads. And because one person’s download is another’s upload, blocking that upload could be considered a hindrance for BitTorrent.

According to AP, Comcast’s blockage of BitTorrent trading is inconsistent and only happens when one BitTorrent user tries to share a complete file with another. BitTorrent is based on several users uploading only a small portion of any given file, so the single person-to-person sharing scenario described in the tests is not descriptive of all BitTorrent traffic.

But when a single user shares that file with a single downloader, AP’s tests showed that Comcast sends a message to each user, and that each message claims to be the other P2P participant. So the downloader thinks he’s getting a message from the uploader and visa-versa.

And the content of that message? It tells the other computer to stop communicating. The Associated Press likens it to a telephone conversation where the operator cuts in on the callers, telling each person on the phone, in the voice of the other participant, "Sorry, I have to hang up. Goodbye."

Why is Comcast doing this? AP says it’s a traffic issue for the ISP as it tries to keep P2P users from gulping too much bandwidth. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as P2P applications can account for anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of Net traffic.

However, many ISPs do make an effort to manage Internet data as it flows through their systems. It’s called "traffic shaping" and it can mean giving a higher priority to some data, such as e-mail or Instant Messaging, while giving file-sharing apps a lower priority.

Comcast is being taken to task because its method of blocking BitTorrent usage affects only one kind of traffic. Furthermore, that method affects everyone relying on BitTorrent, including content companies, bands, artists, TV and film makers using BitTorrent for legitimate data distribution.

What does BitTorrent Inc., which has partnered with several high-profile media companies to distribute their content, have to say about all this?

"They’re using sophisticated technology to degrade service, which probably costs them a lot of money," BitTorrent Inc. co-founder Ashwin Navin said. "It would be better to see them use that money to improve service."


Coalition Forces

Several major media and Internet companies have formed a coalition to prevent copyrighted material from being posted on sites known for featuring user-contributed material, such as MySpace.

The coalition includes Walt Disney, Viacom, CBS, NBC / Universal and News Corp. on the media side, while Microsoft, MySpace, Veoh Networks and Dailymotion make up the Internet side.

The first order of business for the coalition was to issue guidelines for preventing copyright infringements. Specifying filters that would prevent unauthorized content from appearing on social sites such as MySpace or FaceBook, one of the incentives for following the guidelines is that media companies promise not to sue Internet companies if copyrighted material somehow slips past the filters.

One company not part of the coalition is Google, which owns YouTube. Both Google and YouTube are facing a $1 billion infringement lawsuit led by Viacom over copyrighted content posted on the video Web site. Google recently unveiled new filters designed to trap such content on upload, but that hasn’t changed its legal predicament.

"Today’s announcement marks a significant step in transforming the Internet from a Wild West to a popular medium that respects the rule of law," NBC / Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker said when the coalition was announced on October 19th. "By recognizing the mutual benefits of a technology-based framework to control piracy, technology and content companies have laid the foundation for the lawful growth of video on the Internet."



Selling & Stealing In Rainbows

The Great Radiohead Adventure of letting fans decide what they want to pay for digital downloads of the band’s new label-less album, In Rainbows, certainly has caught the world’s attention.

When the band announced it was taking pre-orders, the order form enabled purchasers to determine how much they wanted to pay. Sure, some adoring fans opted to pay a "market value" amount based on CD prices, but many opted for free and entered a big fat goose egg in the price box.

The pay-what-you-want angle kept Radiohead in the headlines for days, with many music biz insiders exalting it as the future of the industry.

But there’s another side to the Radiohead story that isn’t quite as optimistic. Furthermore, it’s an indication that when it comes to obtaining legal, free music, some fans would rather steal than deal.

According to Forbes, download tabulating company Big Champagne determined that on the day In Rainbows became available, 240,000 people chose to download illicit copies of the album as it spread through peer-to-peer BitTorrent sources, even though they could obtain the album for any price they chose through the band’s In Rainbows Web site. What’s more, the album was downloaded about 100,000 times via BitTorrent each day after its initial release.

About 1.2 million legit versions of the album had been downloaded, Forbes reported, but illegal copies are expected to soon eclipse that amount, if not already.

Several reasons are offered for the number of illicit Radiohead downloads, including fans being more familiar with BitTorrent than the In Rainbows site.

But Forbes quoted one copyright expert, UCLA School Of Law intellectual property professor Doug Lichtman, as saying that fans grabbing In Rainbows via P2P might have a negative impact on future distribution experiments.

"If the community rejects even forward-thinking experiments like this one, real harm is done to the next generation of experimentation and change," Lichtman said, adding, "Registration is a small barrier. Sadly, even that little bit of cost might be too much."