Earlier this week, the online video service Vuze filed a petition asking the FCC to codify its 2005 policy statement into rules governing how ISPs may treat the data passing through their networks. It was motivated in no small measure by reports that Comcast was surreptitiously interfering with some types of online traffic in the interests of managing its network. In particular, Comcast was interdicting some types of file-sharing, including BitTorrent, which Vuze uses to deliver its content partners' videos.
I'll be writing more about this next week, either for the blog or the paper, but I thought I'd pass on a couple of observations by Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa. The Comcast episode has often been characterized as having something to do with fighting piracy, because the vast majority of content that passes through file-sharing networks is bootlegged. But what's really at issue here, BianRosa said, is the architecture of the Net, which is ill-suited to the task of transmitting high-resolution video.
Comcast is one of a number of ISPs trying to rein in file-sharing, BianRosa said, and their traffic-management efforts don't discriminate between pirated and legitimate transmissions. Instead, they simply throttle applications that consume a lot of bandwidth (i.e., peer-to-peer networks). The catch is that those applications are also some of the most efficient ways to deliver what Internet users increasingly demand, namely, multimedia experiences. Programs such as BitTorrent are particularly well suited to moving big files around because they can use all the bandwidth available to a downloader, not just what's available at the source. But ISPs design their businesses around the assumption that customers don't use all the bandwidth they're paying for, at least not all the time. They can assign the same capacity to multiple people. That approach starts to break down when customers use BitTorrent to download huge files -- whether it be a licensed high-def program from Vuze or a bootlegged movie -- for hours on end.
"We really understand that problem," BianRosa said. "What we’re trying to say here is, there’s no point fighting where the Internet is going." Now that the public has acquired a taste for rich audio and video content online, it's not turning back. That's why BianRosa wants the FCC to require ISPs to manage their networks transparently, rather than using comparatively blunt tools to interdict traffic secretly. He also wants ISPs, content providers and distributors such as Vuze to work together on the capacity challenges that high-resolution video presents, rather than playing a "cat-and-mouse game" over file-sharing. Vuze and similarly oriented file-sharing firms (e.g., BitTorrent Inc.) could become the entertainment industry's best anti-piracy allies, using file sharing to generate revenue for studios instead of cease-and-desist letters or lawsuits. But they can't play that role if ISPs like Comcast take a binary approach to network management, interfering with BitTorrent traffic indiscriminately to keep their pipelines clear.