Comcast agrees to lift BitTorrent block

Facing a threat of regulation, the ISP makes nice with a file-trading protocol.

By Farhad Manjoo
Published March 27, 2008 4:17PM (EDT)

It's kind of like if Eliot Ness and Al Capone got together to open up a brew pub, or maybe if Eliot Spitzer and the Vice Squad collaborated on Emperors' Club 2.0: Comcast and BitTorrent have agreed to put aside their differences and work together to manage network traffic over Comcast's Internet lines.

Comcast and BitTorrent, you'll recall, are bitter enemies. BitTorrent is a file-sharing method preferred by lovers of copyrighted movies, TV shows, music and games as well as by folks looking to move legitimate large files over the Internet. Consequently, BT consumes much space on network lines -- and Comcast, the Associated Press reported last year, was dealing with this load by surreptitiously delaying or blocking peoples' BitTorrent sessions.

Comcast's actions sparked an outcry; consumer advocates and regulators rightly suggested that the company was violating principles of "network neutrality," which hold that operators should treat all traffic on the network equally.

Perhaps as a result of that anger -- and the possibility of regulation -- Comcast now seems to have backed off.

The Wall Street Journal's got details on the agreement between Comcast and BitTorrent, Inc., the private company that manages the open-source BitTorrent protocol: To keep its network running smoothly at peak times, Comcast will now slow down access for people consuming the most network bandwidth, and will no longer delay specific applications (such as BitTorrent).

This is a good move. It's unfair to penalize everyone using a certain application because some users of that application eat up a lot of network space.

Imagine if Comcast decided to slow down Firefox for everyone because some of its users download far more Web pages than users of Internet Explorer. It's crazy to imagine it -- but the company's BitTorrent block was really not much different.

The new network policy -- which Comcast will try to roll out by the end of the year -- fixes the problem at its source: It institutes an effective bandwidth cap on users, allowing every customer equal access to the network regardless of how they're using their lines.

In other words the network is "neutral" with regard to your application choice, which is what consumer advocates have been calling for.

Good on you, Comcast, for coming around.

But the move does not obviate the need for regulation. Comcast only came around because it feared the government would step in; clearly, the government needs to step in to prevent others from doing the same.

In a statement, Markham Erickson, who heads the advocacy group the Open Internet Coalition, underscored this point:

Time and time again, when the telcos and cable companies engage in discriminatory behavior against certain types of speech and content --- as we've seen with AT&T, Verizon, and most recently with Comcast -- a familiar pattern emerges. First, a spotlight gets focused on the bad behavior. Then, when exposed, the companies state such action is within their power as network operators. After that, the FCC and Congress focus on these discriminatory acts, and finally, the companies do a U-turn and apologize. While it's always a positive step when these companies admit the error of their ways, it's a bad way to run the Internet.

[Flickr picture by dmuth.]

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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