Comcast & Net Neutrality

Comcast is taking heat from consumer advocates, Internet activists and maybe even the Federal Communications Commission over how the second-largest Internet service provider in the U.S. handles peer-to-peer file sharing.

What’s more, this may be one of the very rare instances where a P2P issue does not involve copyright infringements.

Instead, it’s all about how Comcast treats P2P activities. Last fall the company was accused of hindering P2P transfers among its customers, a charge the company first denied. That is, until Associated Press was able to prove that Comcast did not treat all P2P exchanges equally.

And that’s the heart of the issue, for ISPs aren’t supposed to block or purposely circumvent any particular application on their networks. That is, not without letting the customers know about it.

But Comcast got caught with its hands on the data-packet throttle last fall when AP proved the network was interfering with P2P file transfers.

According to Associated Press, Comcast wasn’t blocking or hindering all P2P operations. Instead, the company was interrupting file transfers that involved one sender and one receiver when both were Comcast subscribers. To do this, Comcast would send signals, called "reset packets," to both parties, effectively telling each one that the other was breaking the connection. To each of the computers involved in the P2P transaction, each reset packet appears to have come from the other computer, not from Comcast.

Advocacy groups Free Press and Public Knowledge say there’s a word for creating and sending a message that appears to the receiver as if it was sent from someone other than the real sender. That word is forging.

Comcast says it’s managing traffic, trying to keep the pipes clear for all its users and prevent anyone from hogging the network.

Consumer groups and law professors weren’t all that happy with Comcast’s explanations, and after several complaints about how the ISP manages traffic, the FCC is now looking into the matter.

At issue is the concept known as "Net Neutrality," which calls for network administrators to treat all data equally. Whether it’s that purchased download from iTunes, or home video of that last family reunion, Net Neutrality calls for both to be treated the same, with no preference given to either content’s data packets.

But another issue has been raised regarding Comcast’s use of reset packets. Because Comcast’s television cable operations offer TV shows and movies through its OnDemand service, and because legitimate companies are now employing P2P for video downloading, the company’s critics claim Comcast is disrupting P2P transfers because those transfers compete with OnDemand.

So far, Comcast has only answered specific FCC questions, saying that hampering some P2P transfers is justifiable when trying to keep the data moving for everyone. Plus, on January 25th, the company amended its Acceptable Use Policy to include a few lines about how it reserves the right to interrupt file-sharing actions. All in the name of network management, of course.

Despite all the talk about Net Neutrality, the concept of treating all data equally is just that – a concept. And even though Net Neutrality is a concept backed by the FCC, it is not the law of the land.

What’s more, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin supports network management methods. So, while the FCC endorses the Net Neutrality concept, it might end up sympathetic to an ISP’s need to keep those data packets moving.

Of course, it’s the users who will ultimately win or lose no matter how this issue is resolved. People tend to look unfavorably on those who hog resources meant to be shared by everybody, and if P2P usage clogs ISP networks, hampers e-mail delivery or slows down a YouTube vid, users are more likely to side with the network management crowd.

That is, of course, unless it’s their very own P2P downloads getting that special network management touch. That’s when they’ll side with Net Neutrality advocates.


DVD Jon’s doubleTwist

DVD Jon is in the news again.

The Norwegian computer programmer, whose real name is Jon Lech Johansen, made headlines as a teenager when he cracked the motion picture industry’s DVD encryption. Now he has a new company dedicated to providing an easier way for sharing content among friends.

Founded with Monique Farantzos in 2007, San Francisco-based doubleTwist is about sharing and syncing content across multiple devices, like mobile phones, gaming platforms, music players and TV boxes.

"The digital media landscape has become a tower of Babel, alienating and frustrating consumers," doubleTwist co-founder Farantzos said. "Our goal is to provide a simple and well integrated solution that the average consumer can use to eliminate the headaches associated with their expanding digital universe."

Along with sharing content as well as syncing it with friends’ mobile devices, doubleTwist is getting a lot of attention for its file conversion abilities, namely the ability to convert songs purchased from iTunes and protected by Apple’s proprietary FairPlay digital rights management technology, into unprotected MP3s.

Although some headlines maintain that doubleTwist has cracked Apple’s DRM technology, a closer look indicates otherwise. Reuters reports that doubleTwist merely automates what many iTunes users are already doing.

Ever since the iTunes Music Store opened for business, customers have burned tracks purchased from the online music store to blank CDs, and then re-ripped the CDs back to their computer hard drives. This procedure results in DRM-less copies of the original music purchased from iTunes, although there is some loss of audio quality.

With doubleTwist, the technique is somewhat similar, but the company has cut out the CD burning procedure. Reuters reports that doubleTwist plays the original track in fast-forward mode, and makes a copy of the resulting output, then stores that copy as an MP3. And yes, there is some loss of quality. A five percent loss, according to Reuters.

The founders have made it clear that doubleTwist isn’t for massive file sharing. Instead, they point out that their new service is for sharing content among friends. The current release is a beta version and works on computers running Windows UP and Vista. Expect a Mac OS version sometime during the second quarter.


MySpace Eyes Music Future

MySpace is talking music with the major labels in hopes of repositioning the social networking site as a media company, says the Wall Street Journal.

Owned by News Corp., MySpace is reportedly in discussions with all four major record labels. Although the finer points of an agreement have yet to be worked out, speculation centers on two music delivery methods – streaming and free downloading.

While the streaming would be advertising-supported, there are mixed signals regarding what type of downloads would be made available. While WSJ reports that the downloads might play on any portable device, including iPods, thus ruling out any digital rights management technology, the same article mentions a Napster-like subscription model, which would definitely employ DRM, thus ruling out 100 percent compatibility with all players.

But a few issues must be resolved before all parties can reach an agreement. For example, UMG is currently suing MySpace for copyright infringements. And there’s nothing like an infringement lawsuit hounding you when you want to make a deal.


Apple Bits

Apple has reshuffled its iPod Shuffle strategy by introducing a 2GB model while dropping the original 1GB Shuffle to the bargain basement price of $49. The new 2GB Shuffle will cost $69.

Apple has also made a deal with Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Interactive Media, 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia to sell "American Idol" top 12 contestant performances exclusively on iTunes.

"Idol" fans can purchase performance audio tracks for the iTunes standard price of 99 cents and videos for $1.99. All content will be made available on iTunes the day after the program airs. Fans pre-ordering performances by their favorite "Idol" contestants will receive automatic downloads the day after airing.

"We have some truly outstanding talent this year, and by working with Apple and iTunes, we’re giving viewers another great way to enjoy America’s brightest new stars from ‘Idol,’" said the show’s creator Simon Fuller, who also runs 19 Entertainment. "I’m sure there will be many memorable performances that viewers will want to relive from this 2008 season."