Monday, March 31, 2008

BitTorrent and Comcast: Who Pays and How?

Back on Feb. 4 of this year, I noted how a group of Swedish software experts got in trouble for running a peer-to-peer system for distributing video content over the Internet. The claim made by the prosecutors was that most of the content was pirated. Well, that turned out to be a sign of things to come. For some months now, the major U. S. cable television and Internet network operator Comcast has been in a dispute with BitTorrent Inc., a firm that provides software allowing peer-to-peer sharing of video. And the outcome of the fight may affect how all of us pay for Internet services for years to come.

The first punch in the public fight came when BitTorrent accused Comcast of singling out users of BitTorrent's protocol for interference and interruptions when Comcast's network traffic got too heavy for comfort. At first Comcast denied any such discrimination, but later under pressure, spokesmen for the cable and network firm admitted that they were doing exactly that. Then the Federal Communications Commission got involved and has held public hearings about the matter. On Mar. 27 (last Thursday), Comcast announced that it was making a number of changes that will both eliminate the discriminatory network measures against BitTorrent users and should make improvements in everyone's service through increased software and hardware efficiency and investment. But that hasn't stopped the FCC from announcing another hearing set for Apr. 17 at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley, where I'm sure they will find people with an abundance of opinions on both sides.

What is BitTorrent and how does it work? You may recall the flaps about peer-to-peer sharing of audio files over the Internet a few years ago. BitTorrent's protocol also uses the fact that a file that one person wants is usually stored on thousands of other computers on the network. But video files are thousands of times bigger than audio files, especially if we're talking about HD video, which is becoming increasingly popular. The process of getting only one source computer to send a gigabyte-size file (1,000,000,000 bytes) over the Internet to another computer is tedious, error-prone, and takes a long time. So BitTorrent draws upon many of the other computers that have the file in question and gets them to cooperate by sending different pieces of the file to the target computer. Somehow the software coordinates all this confusion of activity, and the end result to the user is that he or she gets the desired file a lot faster than if only two computers were involved.

But as with so many things, what's good for the individual may not bode well for the group. Comcast and other network service providers estimate that because of BitTorrent's popularity, as much as half of all Internet traffic at certain times consists of peer-to-peer file sharing of this type. Comcast has defended its actions against BitTorrent protocols simply as their attempt to manage their limited network capacity fairly so that other customers were not left out in the cold with impaired service.

The word "fairly" means ethics has come into the picture. This ethical question arises from a tension that was born with the Internet some two decades ago, a tension between two competing philosophies.

Call the first the egalitarian-vision philosophy: the idea that information should be free, all Internet users should have the same privileges and access, and that such ideas should be built into the technical machinery of the Internet. The founders and early users of the Internet were imbued with this philosophy, and its legacy lives on in the basic structure of Internet protocols.

The second philosophy is the commercial free-enterprise notion that the Internet is a means to make money, and you should charge whatever the traffic will bear. It was years before anyone figured out how to make money with the Internet, but with the coming of Google I think it is fair to say that some people, anyway, have managed to do that. This philosophy sees the market as the best arbiter of resource distribution and even matters of fairness. Although there are now a few coarse-grained ways of charging people who want faster Internet service more money, hardly anyone pays any surcharge that depends on how much you actually use the thing. That is, if you ask your service provider for high-speed Internet service, you get a monthly bill that's the same whether you never touched your computer that month, or whether you downloaded seventeen movies in ten days using BitTorrent.

The network operators argue, and with some merit, that if five percent of their customers tie up half the resources of the entire network, it is not fair to the other 95% who pay just as much but have their service degraded by the overcrowding due to BitTorrent traffic. One alternative that Time Warner Cable is reported to be trying out in Beaumont, Texas on a trial basis is "metered" Internet use. That is, if you use more than a certain bandwidth-time product, let's call it, then you pay an extra fee. Metered use flies in the face of decades of Internet tradition and egalitarian philosophy, but if such distortions of the market as those caused by BitTorrent users continue, something will have to change, and the network companies may resort to metering on a wider scale.

A curious analogy to what is happening now with BitTorrent and Comcast went on for over a century in New York City. Until the late 1980s, residential users of the Big Apple's water supply had no meters—they just paid a flat monthly fee. You can imagine how this affected the way people used water. Finally, meters were installed, and the city as a whole used 28% less water in 2006 than it did in 1979. The Internet isn't water, but like water, it is not an infinite resource, and we may have to start paying by the drink if we don't want the whole thing to break down.

Sources: Bob Fernandez of the Philadelphia Inquirer has reported extensively on the BitTorrent-Comcast dispute, and I used his articles published on Mar. 23 ( and Mar. 27 ( The statistic about New York City water use came from the Wikipedia article "Environmental issues in New York City."

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