Looming Net Neutrality Repeal Sparks BitTorrent Throttling Fears

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The FCC is determined to repeal US net neutrality rules. If this happens, Internet providers will have the freedom to restrict or charge for access to certain sites and services, if they please. It also means BitTorrent throttling and blocking could become commonplace again, which would set us back a good ten years.

Ten years ago we uncovered that Comcast was systematically slowing down BitTorrent traffic to ease the load on its network.

The Comcast case ignited a broad discussion about net neutrality and provided the setup for the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which came into effect three years later.

This Open Internet Order then became the foundation of the net neutrality regulation that was adopted in 2015 and still applies today. The big change compared to the earlier attempt was that ISPs can be regulated as carriers under Title II.

These rules provide a clear standard that prevents ISPs from blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of “lawful” traffic. However, this may soon be over as the FCC is determined to repeal it.

FCC head Ajit Pai recently told Reuters that the current rules are too restrictive and hinder competition and innovation, which is ultimately not in the best interests of consumers

“The FCC will no longer be in the business of micromanaging business models and preemptively prohibiting services and applications and products that could be pro-competitive,” Pai said. “We should simply set rules of the road that let companies of all kinds in every sector compete and let consumers decide who wins and loses.”

This week the FCC released its final repeal draft (pdf), which was met with fierce resistance from the public and various large tech companies. They fear that, if the current net neutrality rules disappear, throttling and ‘fast lanes’ for some services will become commonplace.

This could also mean that BitTorrent traffic could become a target once again, with it being blocked or throttled across many networks, as The Verge just pointed out.

Blocking BitTorrent traffic would indeed become much easier if current net neutrality safeguards were removed. However, the FCC believes that the current “no-throttling rules are unnecessary to prevent the harms that they were intended to thwart,” such as blocking entire file transfer protocols.

Instead, the FCC notes that antitrust law, FTC enforcement of ISP commitments, and consumer expectations will prevent any unwelcome blocking. This is also the reason why ISPs adopted no-blocking policies even when they were not required to, they point out.

Indeed, when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals decimated the Open Internet Order in 2014, Comcast was quick to assure subscribers that it had no plans to start throttling torrents again. Yes, that offers no guarantees for the future.

The FCC goes on to mention that the current net neutrality rules don’t prevent selective blocking. They can already be bypassed by ISPs if they offer “curated services,” which allows them to filter content on viewpoint grounds. And Edge providers also block content because it violates their “viewpoints,” citing the Cloudflare termination of The Daily Stormer.

Net neutrality supporters see these explanations as weak excuses and have less trust in the self-regulating capacity of the ISP industry that the FCC, calling for last minute protests to stop the repeal.

For now it appears, however, that the FCC is unlikely to change its course, as Ars Technica reports.

While net neutrality concerns are legitimate, for BitTorrent users not that much will change.

As we’ve highlighted in the past, blocking pirate sites is already an option under the current rules. The massive copyright loophole made sure of that. Targeting all torrent traffic is even an option, in theory.

If net neutrality is indeed repealed next month, blocking or throttling BitTorrent traffic across the entire network will become easier, no doubt. For now, however, there are no signs that any ISPs plan to do so.

If it does, we will know soon enough. The FCC will require ISPs to be transparent under the new plan. They have to disclose network management practices, blocking efforts, commercial prioritization, and the like.

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