In contrast to the US, net neutrality does not seem to be an issue in the UK as one after the other, British ISPs start to throttle BitTorrent users. Most recently, Virgin Media announced that it will target BitTorrent, which will render their newly released 50Mbit/s plan unusable for the people who really need it.
In the US, Comcast has been ordered to stop slowing down BitTorrent users, because this violates Net Neutrality. Across the pond, this does not seem to be an issue, as several ISPs have installed hardware to slow down BitTorrent users.
There haven’t been many reports of British ISPs throttling BitTorrent traffic, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t. Pipex, one of the largest ISPs in the UK, is notorious for its anti-BitTorrent measures. They actively throttle BitTorrent traffic, especially during peak times, and also throttle all encrypted traffic. Other UK ISPs that throttle BitTorrent traffic are BT Broadband, Eclipse, Plusnet, Freedom2Surf and TalkTalk. Virgin Media has not (openly) targeted BitTorrent traffic, but they will now follow suit.
Virgin Media’s CEO Neil Berkett told The Register that the company will start limiting BitTorrent traffic for all its customers. To some this might not really come as a surprise, as earlier this year Berkett said “This net neutrality thing is a load of bollocks.” Virgin’s BitTorrent throttling plans seem to back up this earlier statement. Which throttling methods Virgin will use has not been announced, but Berkett said that they will be implemented mid 2009.
ISPs have been messing with BitTorrent traffic for years, even when the traffic generated was just a tiny fraction of what it is today. When the first ISPs began throttling BitTorrent traffic, Azureus (now Vuze), BitComet and uTorrent introduced a countermeasure, namely, protocol header encryption. This worked well initially, but soon after encryption was introduced, ISPs started to use hardware that could detect encrypted traffic.
The degree of traffic shaping varies a lot between different ISPs. Some only limit BitTorrent traffic during certain times of the day or throttle in specific regions, others take a more aggressive approach and prevent their customers from seeding or even downloading .torrent files. The most used argument to justify their actions, is that all the BitTorrent traffic on their network slows down other customers’ connections.
Whether this is indeed the case can be debated. Nevertheless, instead of investing in their own network to solve these potential congestion issues, ISPs prefer to slow down customers who just happen to use the ‘wrong’ protocol, claiming problems with capacity. Which is interesting, since Virgin started offering an unlimited 50Mbit/s package this week, up from their old limit of 20Mbit/s. Maybe BitTorrent throttling helps make room for this new service.