EFF Tool Hunts BitTorrent Throttling ISPs

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Comcast must feel it's being attacked by all sides. It's been hit by lawsuits, investigated by the FCC, and roundly criticised everywhere else. It has brought the issue of traffic shaping to the forefront of people's minds, and into public discussion. Aiming to highlight ISP's and their shaping, the EFF has released a new tool for users to test their connection's integrity.

Switzerland logoIt’s been about a year since we first broke the story about Comcast and their torrent-throttling practices. Today, they were ordered (doc|pdf) to cease their practices by the end of the year, and disclose their practices by the end of August. Many expect Comcast to appeal, but others feel that Comcast has no grounds for it.

Regardless, Comcast is not the only ISP that is throttling. As was revealed in the stats from Project Glasnost, Cox is also throttling heavily. So, while some are popping the champagne corks over this victory, others are still working hard to keep our ISP’s honest, and ensure that their customers are getting what they paid for.

The latest of these, is a project called Switzerland by the EFF. Still in very early alpha, it’s an attempt to not just detect sandvineing by an ISP, but other forms of throttling as well. Unlike Glasnost, which uses a central server and known torrent streams to detect activities from the ISP interfering, this will use a more decentralised method, where peers running Switzerland swap information about the packets they send to other Switzerland users, in encrypted data packets sent via a central server. In effect, it’s a checksum of torrent activity sent via a 3rd party. As Peter Eckersley, staff technologist for the EFF, and developer of Switzerland puts it “Alice and Bob are exchanging packets, they connect to a neutral server (Switzerland) to arbitrate between their different views of the packets”.

When asked why the EFF started this project, and why they believe a neutral network is important, he told TorrentFreak: “There were several reasons why we started the Test Your ISP project, and designed and built Switzerland. One reason was pragmatic: we were trying to run systematic tests of the interference that Comcast was deploying against P2P networks, and we decided that the only sensible way to do that was to build an automated sensor network. So we set about doing that.”

“The bigger picture, of course, is that without transparency the Internet won’t remain the amazing open and innovative thing that it has been,” Eckersley says. “And EFF’s mission is to make sure that the Internet stays open and innovative. We need to shine lights into the dark corners of the network, and make sure that ISPs aren’t setting themselves up in some control room and saying “protocol A okay, but protocol B doesn’t fit with our business plans, so let’s give it second-class treatment or stop it from working entirely.”

Some might worry that the client might open up people to being monitored by anti-p2p companies or other undesirables, using the system as another method of verification, but there is really no way around it. The simplest method to avoid that is, in Peters words, “avoid exchanging copyrighted files between Switzerland clients. The copyright risks are probably lower if you run your own Switzerland server, but it’s still going to keep logs.”

The question of what the FCC will do about these other ISPs and their traffic management is one to ponder. Our inquiries on this matter have been acknowledged, but not replied to at the time of publication.


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