Ignited by the Comcast fiasco in the US, the concept of Net Neutrality has been brought into the mainstream resulting in planned government interventions. However, unlike the name suggests, Net Neutrality might not stop BitTorrent blocking and could leave us worse off than when this all started.
Although Comcast has been at the center of the BitTorrent blocking and Net Neutrality debate, they are certainly not the only Internet provider targeting the popular file-sharing protocol.
All around the world, hundreds of larger and smaller ISPs are actively interfering with BitTorrent traffic, allegedly to keep their networks in good shape. Thus far, only Comcast has been punished for doing so.
In 2008 the FCC looked into Comcast’s BitTorrent blocking and concluded that the company’s network management practices were unfair because they specifically targeted BitTorrent, not any other protocols.
The FCC ordered Comcast to stop blocking BitTorrent transfers, and last year the communications commission decided to take up the task of ensuring that the Internet remains neutral. At least, that was the initial plan, the reality is less hopeful.
Although it was Comcast’s anti-BitTorrent measures that sparked the current Net Neutrality debate, the FCC’s current proposals are not going to stop ISPs from slowing down or even blocking BitTorrent traffic. In fact, if these rules are implemented, BitTorrent users will be worse off than three years ago.
In the 107 page proposal detailing the Net Neutrality regulation, the FCC says that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally, but it allows ISPs to slow down or block traffic if it’s considered to be “reasonable network management”.
So the key issue is, what are reasonable network management practices and how may these affect BitTorrent traffic? Let’s take a look at what the FCC has to say about this.
Reasonable network management consists of reasonable practices employed by a provider of broadband Internet access service to [...] (i) reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network or to address quality-of-service concerns; [...] (iii) prevent the transfer of unlawful content; or (iv) prevent the unlawful transfer of content.
In short, this means that ISPs have plenty of options to target BitTorrent traffic and keep the Net Neutral at the same time. Let’s take a closer look.
As the EFF has also pointed out, the latter two conditions (iii and iv) would make it perfectly reasonable to block BitTorrent traffic for the purpose of preventing piracy. The terminology is rather vague, but we expect that when the MPAA or RIAA produce a report stating that 95% of all BitTorrent traffic involves copyright violations, blocking BitTorrent may become perfectly reasonable.
And that’s just one of the many loopholes. There are also plenty of options for ISPs to target BitTorrent traffic without going for the piracy/copyright angle. In fact, congestion issues and quality-of-service concerns are even more viable and can be implemented to target BitTorrent traffic specifically, but indirectly.
Under the proposed plans, ISPs could simply manage their networks by slowing down connections that use “too many” TCP connections, one of the key characteristics of BitTorrent traffic. There are plenty of arbitrary rules that may look reasonable and neutral, but will specifically (not exclusively) hinder BitTorrent transfers to ease the strain on the network.
In fact, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) which develops and promotes Internet standards is working on a proposal that might kill BitTorrent traffic if implemented. The proposed protocol will mark all packets which are expected to cause congestion as “negative packets,” which is likely to apply to and slow down most peer-to-peer traffic.
One way or another, the FCC’s Net Neutrality plan is no guarantee that BitTorrent will be able to download at full speeds. On the contrary, the plans might actually encourage ISPs to use Deep Packet Inspection technologies to check if the traffic of its subscribers is lawful, if it’s the last resort to slow down BitTorrent. We don’t want that to happen do we?