Friday's post about the FCC ordering Comcast to stop surreptitiously interfering with BitTorrent uploads drew a number of thought-provoking comments. I'll concede the point made by some readers that it's too early to tell exactly what the FCC did, given that the detailed order has yet to be released. But in light of the concerns raised about ISPs' ability to manage their networks, I wanted to ask a pointed hypothetical.
Suppose a Web-based business comes up with a compelling way to stream movies in high def. Studios love it, so they agree to provide licenses to the content. The site's popularity skyrockets. But it consumes a crazy amount of bandwidth because it uses a delivery method that saturates customers' download and upload capacities. How should ISPs respond? Should they throttle access to the site or its delivery protocol, which might make it impossible for the streams to be delivered in high-def? Should they institute bandwidth caps that effectively force customers who regularly use the site to pay more than folks who do so rarely, if at all? Or is there some other approach that would be more desirable? And does the answer change if the ISP also happens to offer a pay-TV service that competes with this online VOD venture? Resist the urge to quibble with the premise, and post your answers below.
Lovely fiber-optic array courtesy of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has taken a lot of flak since he announced last week that the commission was ready to rule that Comcast improperly interfered with BitTorrent traffic. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board groused that Martin, a Republican, was "poised to expand government regulation of the Internet." Fellow Republican commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate accused Martin and the commission's two Democrats, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, of "issuing broad mandates to protect the few" instead of looking out for average Internet users and intellectual property owners. ("By requiring ISPs to `carefully tailor' their network management practices, I am concerned that we will potentially be
stripping them of the important tools they use—and we need-- to purge their
platforms of illegal content which negatively impacts every type of intellectual
property, from software to pharmaceuticals to of course, songwriters and motion
pictures." Who knew that counterfeit medicines were made through file sharing?) And the third Republican on the FCC, Robert McDowell, complained, "For the first time, today our government is choosing regulation over collaboration when it comes to Internet governance. The majority has thrust politicians and bureaucrats into engineering decisions."
But it's worth remembering the difference between what Comcast actually did and what its defenders seem to think it did.
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The public drubbing Comcast has received for interfering with BitTorrent uploads may not have been enough to stop other ISPs from doing the very same thing. The Associated Press reported today that a new study by the Max Planck institute found that Cox, a major cable operator, appeared to have taken a page from Comcast and was sending reset packets to disconnect BitTorrent uploaders. Of the 151 computers on Cox's network that ran the institute's test, 82 were blocked (you can read about the methodology here). That's 54%. The only other U.S. ISP to have such a high percentage of blocked uploads was Comcast, where 62% of the 788 hosts were blocked, the AP reported.
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The cable industry and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin have both opposed bills to mandate Net neutrality, yet they hardly sounded like allies at a Senate hearing Tuesday. Of course, Martin and the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. haven't agreed on much during his tenure. But the split over Net neutrality on display yesterday reflects a fundamental difference over what Internet providers are obligated to give their customers. The NCTA argues that Job No. 1 is fighting congestion. Martin, on the other hand, puts a top priority on preserving liberty -- not just for consumers, but also but for commercial users as well. That puts him on a collision course with cable and DSL providers, setting up a battle over what the FCC has the power to do.
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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.
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The ink was still drying on Comcast's press release this morning announcing a collaboration with BitTorrent Inc. on the touchy subject of network management when various groups for and against Net neutrality regulations started weighing in. The ones opposed to such rules typically said the collaboration proved government action was unnecessary; the ones who favored them argued that Comcast acted only because the FCC had launched an investigation into the cable company's interference with BitTorrent traffic.
BitTorrent President Ashwin Navin was asked his views on the need for neutrality rules this afternoon, but he refused to take the bait. Speaking at the Technology Policy Summit conference in Hollywood, Navin noted that Comcast wasn't the only ISP using that particular technique to interfere with BitTorrent uploads. "I feel good about our relationship with Comcast," he said. "The FCC has several other ISPs that it needs to be vigilent about.... It would be appropriate, responsible for the FCC to do what it needs to do to make sure the U.S. is a leader in broadband, not only in broadband technology but also broadband regulation."
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The speech MPAA chief Dan Glickman gave last week at ShoWest is like the gift that keeps on giving. In case you missed my two earlier posts on this topic, Glickman declared the MPAA's unambiguous opposition to Net neutrality regulations. Among other things, he warned that such rules would "impede our ability to respond to consumers in innovative ways" and interfere with ISPs' anti-piracy efforts. Today the Digital Freedom Campaign
-- a lobbying group backed by the Consumer Electronics Assn., several consumer advocates and other groups that often oppose Hollywood on copyright issues -- issued a statement inviting Glickman to take the same deregulatory approach to the rest of the MPAA's policy agenda in Washington. The studios, after all, have a history of pressing Congress and the FCC for regulations that would impede hardware and software makers' ability to respond to consumers in innovative ways, particularly when copyrighted programming was involved. For example, the "broadcast flag" rules sought by Hollywood would require home networks to include government-approved content-protection technology, and its approach to closing the "analog hole" would dictate how long a TiVo could store some of the programs it recorded. Here's the money graf from Digital Freedom spokeswoman Maura Corbett:
We suspect the big studios are rolling the Trojan Horse of “copyright
enforcement” to Congress to protect their business models from openness offered
by the Internet. But for now, let’s take them at their word – given MPAA’s
newfound aversion “government regulation”, we eagerly look forward to them
standing down on broadcast flag legislation, the analog hole bill, and other
initiatives to restrict consumers and limit new technologies.
Don't hold your breath, Maura!
MPAA chief Dan Glickman doesn't speak for the movie industry, technically. His clients are the MPAA's dues-paying members, the major Hollywood studios. And the interests of those studios -- all owned by giant conglomerates -- don't necessarily align with their smaller brethren, just as the RIAA often parts ways on policy matters with the indie labels. A good illustration of this is a letter to Glickman released today by Jean Prewitt, president of the Independent Film and Television Alliance. She blasted Glickman for coming out against Net neutrality regulations earlier this week in a speech to theater owners. You can download the letter here, or just check out the money line:
The issue is not whether the government should regulate the Internet but whether there will be effective oversight to prevent a handful of corporate giants from imposing their own version of private regulation to the public's detriment.
Not that the indies particularly mind the use of government regulatory power: last year IFTA called on the FCC to require networks to devote at least 25% of their programming lineups to shows from unaffiliated producers (Download here). Nevertheless, independent studios have a clear interest in Net neutrality rules that would prevent larger players from buying preferential treatment for their websites and online services, particularly with the opportunities dimming on cable, satellite and broadcast TV for smaller programmers. As Prewitt put it, "Allowing the Internet to become the exclusive province of a small number of large companies would inevitably harm the future of independent art and commerce."
If Glickman releases a reply, I'll update this post to include it.
Verizon, a leading provider of broadband services in the U.S., is
the belle of the blogs today thanks to its work with a p2p trade group on a technology to speed p2p downloads. The technique, developed by researchers from Yale and the University of Washington, enables p2p software and broadband networks to work together to select the most efficient way to deliver a requested file.
For ISPs, this "P4P" approach offers a way to cut the amount of bandwidth hoovered by file-sharing applications -- in particular, the costly bandwidth between the ISP's local network and the rest of the Internet. That's because it would help downloaders obtain as much as possible from the shortest possible electronic paths.
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MPAA chief Dan Glickman made it official today: Hollywood will fight Net neutrality regulations being considered by Congress and the FCC. Glickman's comments, which were in his annual "state of the industry" speech at ShoWest, weren't exactly surprising, given that the MPAA had urged the FCC last year not to adopt neutrality rules that would hurt anti-piracy efforts. Today, though, the nuance was gone. Said Glickman:
Government regulation of the Internet would impede our ability to respond to consumers in innovative ways, and it would impair the ability of broadband providers to address the serious and rampant piracy problems occurring over their networks today.
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