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Saturday, October 20, 2007

One Person’s Upload is Another Person’s Download

posted by on October 20 at 11:16 AM

Yesterday, I posted a conservative critique of Net neutrality. I agreed with the article for a half a second, but then I came to my senses.

Their analogy (that the Net is like a newspaper that can prioritize content as it sees fit) falls flat because the Net isn’t like one newspaper. The Net is more like the public library, where I can find every newspaper equally displayed on the shelves. And that’s the point of Net neutrality: The Net is a public resource that should not be used to discriminate against content.

The private companies that profit from operating this public resource, should not be able to discriminate against content providers.

According to an uncharacteristically opinionated and investigative-style story that broke in the AP yesterday, Comcast—the nation’s No. 2 internet provider—in an apparent effort to curb file sharing, is discriminating on the Net.

Here’s the AP lead:

NEW YORK - Comcast Corp. actively interferes with attempts by some of its high-speed Internet subscribers to share files online, a move that runs counter to the tradition of treating all types of Net traffic equally.

The interference, which The Associated Press confirmed through nationwide tests, is the most drastic example yet of data discrimination by a U.S. Internet service provider. It involves company computers masquerading as those of its users.

If widely applied by other ISPs, the technology Comcast is using would be a crippling blow to the BitTorrent, eDonkey and Gnutella file-sharing networks. While these are mainly known as sources of copyright music, software and movies, BitTorrent in particular is emerging as a legitimate tool for quickly disseminating legal content.

The principle of equal treatment of traffic, called “Net Neutrality” by proponents, is not enshrined in law but supported by some regulations. Most of the debate around the issue has centered on tentative plans, now postponed, by large Internet carriers to offer preferential treatment of traffic from certain content providers for a fee.

And as I said, the must-read article is uncharacteristic for the AP. It truth-squads Comcast’s sound bites and makes the case for Net neutrality. Here’s a sample:

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable TV operator and No. 2 Internet provider, would not specifically address the practice, but spokesman Charlie Douglas confirmed that it uses sophisticated methods to keep Net connections running smoothly.

“Comcast does not block access to any applications, including BitTorrent,” he said.

Douglas would not specify what the company means by “access” — Comcast subscribers can download BitTorrent files without hindrance. Only uploads of complete files are blocked or delayed by the company, as indicated by AP tests.

But with “peer-to-peer” technology, users exchange files with each other, and one person’s upload is another’s download. That means Comcast’s blocking of certain uploads has repercussions in the global network of file sharers.

Comcast’s technology kicks in, though not consistently, when one BitTorrent user attempts to share a complete file with another user.

Each PC gets a message invisible to the user that looks like it comes from the other computer, telling it to stop communicating. But neither message originated from the other computer — it comes from Comcast. If it were a telephone conversation, it would be like the operator breaking into the conversation, telling each talker in the voice of the other: “Sorry, I have to hang up. Good bye.”

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This brings up another side to the Net Neutrality debate: While most criticisms of a tiered system so far have centered around the disturbing free speech implications of allowing telecoms to be gatekeepers, there is also the issue of suppressing competitive technologies. This story is a good example of how a non-neutral system could be used to cripple innovative technologies that for one reason or another impinge on the gatekeeper's interest. With the increasing consolidation of corporations it's not at all hard to imagine the telecoms disrupting traffic for all sorts of reasons. Maybe Rupert Murdoch or Disney buy a telecom and decide to use it to sabotage certain file-transfer software because it might be used to transmit their copyrighted material.

This isn't a point you'll hear from those libertarian free-market cultists either, because they always claim to be pro-business even while they're opposing a level playing field. Encouraging innovation is one of those things that a free market is supposed to do, and yet here's an obvious case where a supposedly "free market" approach does the exact opposite.

Posted by flamingbanjo | October 20, 2007 12:20 PM

I feel like this sort of action (from corporations) is borderline legal at best, and would be on the precipice of a showdown in the courts if we weren't bogged down with other silly Bush era rhetoric and law.

Posted by Jaye | October 20, 2007 12:31 PM

Flamingbanjo @1,

The Conservative rejoinder, however, is this: If there's a viable technology that one ISP is rejecting, another ISP in the free marketplace will embrace it. And, if the technology is so great and popular, the ISP that's rejecting it will come out the loser.

Posted by Josh Feit | October 20, 2007 12:32 PM

It's hard for that free marketplace to have an effect when all serious competition is from local monopolies. Yes, clearwire isn't regulated like telco's and cable companies, but they don't have the same speed.

Posted by wisepunk | October 20, 2007 12:54 PM

More on the AP article here.

"It'd be wonderful if the solution was to simply stop subscribing to Comcast. If that would make you feel better, by all means, cancel your subscription.

But know this: Other broadband vendors have not distinguished themselves on the issue of network neutrality. In general, major broadband companies say they should be free to manage traffic on their networks, and it's impossible to tell how expansively they understand that "management" role.

If Comcast is saving money by adopting such methods, you can bet others are already doing so, or soon will. It would be shocking if Comcast were the only one."

Posted by laterite | October 20, 2007 1:09 PM

Josh: I know you're playing devil's advocate here. And the above replies pretty well rejoinder the rejoinder. I would add that the "free market" that conservatives like to say will provide solutions is replete with examples of monopolistic practices and collusion between giant corporations to squelch innovations that threaten their established business models. One need look no further than the energy industry to see this in action.

The fact that monopolies are bad for innovation and bad for consumers is something that Teddy Roosevelt knew a hundred years ago. The fact that it's still considered controversial in some quarters is just proof of how successful those who profit from such practices have been at keeping their discredited arguments in circulation.

Posted by flamingbanjo | October 20, 2007 2:25 PM


Jesus, get with the program!

Posted by Brandon H | October 20, 2007 5:07 PM

any grounds here for a class action against Comcast?

I signed up with Comcast because cable is significantly higher than any DSL available in my neighborhood. And for a couple of years it was great, but for the last four or five months I have basically been unable to upload. I certainly am not getting what I'm paying for, but is there any way to force them to provide it?

Posted by gnossos | October 21, 2007 2:11 PM

A conservative publication, yes. But since when is Larry Tribe a conservative?

Posted by Wa Dem | October 22, 2007 3:31 PM

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