Was it really just a few months ago that Comcast was surreptitiously interfering with BitTorrent uploads? How quickly things change. Late last month Comcast, the country's leading cable operator, announced that it was collaborating with BitTorrent Inc. on "protocol agnostic" ways to manage the network. In other words, no more techniques that eased congestion by cracking down on file-sharers. Today, it declared that it was developing a "P2P Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" with Pando Networks, a tech company whose optimized file-sharing techniques reduce the amount of bandwidth used. Not surprisingly, the latest announcement was greeted with reserved enthusiasm from Net neutrality advocates, who aren't persuaded that Comcast's thinking has changed along with its tune.
Don't get me wrong -- I like the idea of a "P2P Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" embraced by ISPs and p2p software companies. Anything that promotes transparency and efficiency by both of those entities would be very much in the public's interest. The notion evidently originated with the DCIA, a trade group trying to advance legitimate, commercial uses of file-sharing. In fact, that group said after Comcast's announcement that it would be working with members and other interested parties on an early draft of a P2P bill of rights at a conference it's holding in Hollywood May 5. Like Comcast, the DCIA favors a voluntary industry approach to managing the bandwidth demands of P2P, rather than government regulation. But I wonder whether Comcast's vision of "responsible" P2P might be closer to Hollywood's than the DCIA's.
Consider this comment by Comcast CTO Tony Werner from today's press release: "By having this framework in place, we will help P2P companies, ISPs and content owners find common ground to support consumers who want to use P2P applications to deliver legal content." How might the bill of rights and responsibilities address the delivery of infringing content? Would one of the responsibilities of p2p networks be to identify and deter bootlegs? Would ISPs be free to interfere with p2p networks that didn't live up to their responsibilities?
Martin Lafferty, CEO of the DCIA, said it's important to get content companies more involved in the discussions over making P2P networks play nice with ISPs. "They would like to see all these efficiency enhancements applied to licensed content distribution. It’s always going to be the devil in the details," Lafferty said. If content owners argued that ISPs and P2P networks have a responsibility to guard against online piracy, "the pushback would be, the responsibility of the content owner would be to license their content on non-discriminatory terms and conditions" to P2P systems, Lafferty said. In other words, rather than just trying to shut down P2P distribution channels, the DCIA wants Hollywood to support authorized, licensed ways to distribute works through such systems.
A number of P2P companies are getting licenses from content owners to distribute works, although they've had limited success in Hollywood. These companies are particularly vulnerable to interference from ISPs. One of them, Vuze, has asked the FCC to craft clearer rules to protect against the kind of traffic meddling that Comcast secretly engaged in. The FCC is scheduled to hold its second hearing on the topic Thursday (necessitated in part by Comcast paying people to fill seats at the first hearing). In response to Comcast's announcement today, Gilles BianRosa, Vuze's CEO, put out this statement:
When we filed our petition for rulemaking with the FCC in November, 2007, we stated that both regulation and meaningful industry cooperation are necessary to protect consumer rights and foster innovation. We still believe that. Whether you believe that Comcast’s relationship with Pando arises out of genuine enlightenment or is just for publicity, it changes nothing in terms of our original petition. The FCC should adopt enforceable rules that protect all consumers against improper throttling tactics. Ultimately, only the rule of law will compel network operators to stay on the straight and narrow.
Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge was a bit more, umm, harsh, calling the Comcast-Pando agreement an attempt by the cable giant to "evade punishment" for its actions last year. She went on:
The fact that Comcast is trying to come up with a Bill of Rights for customers is ludicrous. This is the company that not only lied for a year about the workings of its Internet service, but also created such ill will among its cable subscribers that one elderly woman busted up a customer service office with a hammer because she and her husband were kept waiting for hours in the heat. Comcast should fix its internal problems with customers being kicked off the Internet service for no good reason, or are disappointed about having programming switched to expensive digital services before it starts pretending to solve the problems of the Internet that it helped to cause.