Net Neutrality: Mobile Broadband Suppliers Discriminate Against BitTorrent

According to a new report on Net Neutrality, users of mobile broadband services who hope that all of their Internet traffic will be prioritized equally will be disappointed. While much traffic is left unhindered, the report from the organization responsible for Sweden's .SE national domain reveals that some operators systematically degrade BitTorrent transfers, and some block them altogether.

The Internet Infrastructure Foundation is the independent organization responsible for operating the top Swedish domain (.SE) and national domain name registry. It actively promotes development and stability of the Internet.

The Health Status of Net Neutrality – The Operators’ Impact on Internet Traffic is their new report which looks at how suppliers of fixed and mobile Internet services in Sweden, traditionally some of the fastest in the world, regulate the flow of traffic in their networks.

The plan was to discover if throttling activities exist among operators, and if so to assess how feasable it is to accurately measure it, and then decide whether it was worth continuing with and expanding upon the project.

Tests were conducted by .SE on the services of a dozen ISPs and measurements were taken for three different types of traffic – standard web browsing, file-sharing and video (such as YouTube).

“What is evident from the measurement results is that some mobile operators systematically downgrade user traffic such as the file-sharing protocol BitTorrent,” says Jörgen Eriksson.

Eriksson, who had responsibility for conducting the tests, says at least one ISP blocked all incoming connections to torrent clients.

The report notes that interfering with BitTorrent is a bad idea, since much open software distribution relies on it. Furthermore, messing with P2P protocols in general is problematic since other services such as Skype, Spotify and Voddler use them.

“If an operator attempts to limit these protocols and the operator’s customers know that their Internet connection does not give them full access to this type of service the operator will lose customers,” says the report.

In Sweden, service providers are free to restrict traffic providing they comply with certain conditions, but the report criticizes ISPs for their lack of transparency.

“The most interesting conclusion is that it is very difficult, if at all possible, to find information among operators about what they block or prioritize,” says Eriksson.

“We know that mobile market players see it as an advantage to NOT be compared with others. There is thus a risk that even if the technical information is presented, it will be useless for those who do not have a deep understanding of how the Internet is built.”

For now and until .SE’s next and more comprehensive report, the tested ISPs will retain their anonymity giving them time to reconsider their strategy, which given wider considerations might not be a bad idea.

Restricting end-users’ access to peer-to-peer based services could have a knock-on effect to the wider Internet. Peer-to-peer protocols help to distribute traffic online, an improvement upon older and more bandwidth intensive models.

“If peer-to-peer protocols are blocked so the trend will go toward developing protocols according to the traditional server-client model, or data will be hidden in other traffic where it is difficult to discern,” the report adds.

“It will probably not be as effective and lead to an increase in traffic – rather than the decrease as ISPs seek when they block peer-to-peer protocols,” the report concludes.

Full report here (Swedish, pdf)

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