Comcast Corp., an internet service provider under investigation for hampering online file-sharing by its subscribers, on March 27 announced an about-face in its stance and said it will treat all types of internet traffic equally.
Comcast said it will collaborate with BitTorrent Inc., the company founded by the creator of the popular BitTorrent file-sharing protocol, to come up with better ways to transport large files over the internet instead of delaying file transfers.
Since user reports of interference with file-sharing traffic were confirmed by an Associated Press investigation in October, Comcast has been vigorously defending its practices, most recently at a hearing of the Federal Communications Commission in February.
Consumer and “net neutrality” advocates have been equally vigorous in their attacks on the company, saying that by secretly blocking some connections between file-sharing computers, Comcast made itself a judge and gatekeeper for the internet.
They also accused Comcast of stifling delivery of internet video, an emerging competitor to the core business of the nation’s largest cable operator.
It was not immediately clear what effect, if any, the move will have on the FCC’s ongoing probe, but supporters of net neutrality remained skeptical and called on the agency to publish clear rules discouraging interference with network traffic.
“This deal is the direct result of public pressure, and the threat of FCC action, against Comcast,” said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press, a media reform group. “But with Comcast’s history of broken promises and record of deception, we can’t just take their word that the internet is now in safe hands.”
Comcast has said that its practices were necessary to keep file-sharing traffic from overwhelming local cable lines, where neighbors share capacity with one another.
On March 27, Comcast said that by year’s end, it no longer will target files based on the type of protocol used, such as BitTorrent’s, and instead will explore alternatives.
“The outcome will be a traffic management technique that is more appropriate for today’s emerging internet trends,” Tony Werner, Comcast’s chief technology officer, said in a statement.
One option is to delay file transfers for the heaviest downloaders, regardless of protocol, the Philadelphia-based company said.
Comcast said it also was monitoring Time Warner Cable Inc.’s experiment in placing explicit caps on the monthly downloads for new customers in Beaumont, Texas. Subscribers who go over their allotment will pay extra, much like a cell-phone subscriber who uses too many minutes in a month.
But Comcast might be wary about charging certain users more because of competitive pressure, especially after rival Verizon Communications Inc. said recently that such traffic is legitimate and that its FiOS network can handle the flow, said Harold Feld of Media Access Project, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Comcast has been hampering the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol, which together with the eDonkey protocol accounts for about a third of all internet traffic, according to figures from Arbor Networks. The vast majority of that is illegal sharing of copyright-protected files, but file sharing is also emerging as a low-cost way of distributing legal content—and video in particular.
On March 27, Werner all but embraced peer-to-peer file transfers, saying the techniques have “matured as an enabler for legal content distribution.”
The company initially veiled its traffic-management system in secrecy, saying openness would allow users to circumvent it. Werner said the company now would “publish” the new technique and take into account feedback from the internet community.
Comcast and BitTorrent said they want to work out network management issues privately, without the need for government intervention.
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell agreed as much, saying in a statement that “the private sector is the best forum to resolve such disputes.”
For its part, BitTorrent acknowledged that service providers have to manage their networks somehow, especially during peak times.
“While we think there were other management techniques that could have been deployed, we understand why Comcast and other ISPs adopted the approach that they did initially,” Eric Klinker, BitTorrent’s chief technology officer, said in a statement.
Comcast also said that the issue is larger than BitTorrent. It said it was in talks with other parties to find solutions, although the cable company might not have much of a choice.
Verizon recently announced that by sharing information with Pando Networks, another file-sharing company, Verizon was able to speed up file-sharing downloads for its subscribers while reducing the strain on its own network. AT&T Inc. has been looking at similar collaboration.
However, phone companies are in a better position than cable companies to deal with file-sharing traffic, since neighbors don’t share capacity on phone lines.
Comcast’s announcement came on the same day that the Associated Press reported on a new tool for users to monitor ISP interference with their downloads. Vuze Inc., a California-based company that provides a popular file-sharing program, is giving its users free software to help figure out if their internet service provider is interfering with their network traffic.
The plug-in Vuze made available as a free download last weekend looks for “reset packets,” the tool Comcast has used to break off some connections with computers trying to download files from Comcast subscribers, Vuze said March 27.
The plug-in works with Vuze’s main application, Azureus, which is based on the BitTorrent file-sharing technology. If the user allows it, the plug-in will send data back to Vuze, which will collect information about ISPs that are interfering with their subscribers’ traffic.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Vuze said Azureus has been downloaded 20 million times, and an average of 1.3 million users are using it at any one time.
The nonprofit People for Internet Responsibility has formed a Network Neutrality Squad to develop similar software tools that it will distribute free of charge to people who want to test what their ISP is doing.
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