ruled this morning by a 3 to 2 vote that Comcast's arbitrary throttling of customers' use of BitTorrent was illegal. Hours before the ruling, the Electronic Frontier Foundation released software that anyone can use to see if their Internet Service Provider (ISP) is engaging in the same or similar behavior.The Federal Communications Commission
BitTorrent accounts for a substantial percentage of traffic on the internet and some people believe it causes unfair slowdowns for web users doing anything else online. Many other people argue that ISPs have an obligation to treat all internet traffic equally regardless of content. This is a key battle in the Network Neutrality debate.
Enforcement Against Comcast
Comcast voluntarily stopped throttling in March, but today's FCC decision is important FCC Chair Kevin Martin says so that "consumers deserve to know that the commitment is backed up by legal enforcement." Martin, a Republican, is believed by some to be taking an out-of-charecter populist stance on the matter because he's preparing to run for a position in the US House of Representatives.
EFF Releases "Switzerland"
The Electronic Frontier Foundation today released software called "Switzerland" (as in, the neutral country) that can be used by consumers to test our networks for ISP interference.
The EFF explains:
"Switzerland is an open source, command-line software tool designed to detect the modification or injection of packets of data by ISPs. Switzerland detects changes made by software tools believed to be in use by ISPs such as Sandvine and AudibleMagic, advertising systems like FairEagle, and various censorship systems. Although currently intended for use by technically sophisticated Internet users, development plans aim to make the tool increasingly easy to use."
We'll keep our eyes peeled for a version of the tool that doesn't require using the command line, though every network in the land can now assume that it has users tech-savvy enough to be monitoring its behavior.
This quote from the EFF release puts things into context:
"The sad truth is that the FCC is ill-equipped to detect ISPs interfering with your Internet connection," said Fred von Lohmann, EFF Senior Intellectual Property Attorney. "It's up to concerned Internet users to investigate possible network neutrality violations, and EFF's Switzerland software is designed to help with that effort. Comcast isn't the first, and certainly won't be the last, ISP to meddle surreptitiously with its subscribers' Internet communications for its own benefit."
What Do You Think?
The FCC's ruling was narrowly decided, through a 3 to 2 vote. Do you think ISPs have a legitimate interest in favoring some web traffic over others? On one hand, a future where big players get preferential treatment could cause a major slowdown in innovation. Startups and unknown application providers could be prevented from leveraging maximum bandwidth to offer new types of services to consumers. The most common example given is that YouTube may have struggled to make online video so common if they were discriminated against in their earliest days.
On the other hand, people downloading long lists of huge media files over common networks could be seen as an onerous drain on the "bandwidth commons." Slowing down an entire neighborhood's web use because you want to get the entire archives of some TV show is arguably pretty anti-social behavior.
Discussion above hasn't touched on legal matters, but for many people that's a big part of this debate as well. The US Congress, for example, voted this morning to require US colleges receiving federal funding to make commercial music purchasing services available to students online and filter traffic to deter P2P music sharing. The music industry says thank you! Some scientists using P2P on college campuses to transfer large files used in academic research, on the other hand, probably don't appreciate it as much. (That's probably not going on over the same networks, but the point is that there are very legitimate and important uses for P2P as well.)
We'd love to get our readers' thoughts on these questions - and for those of you able to put Switzerland to use, let us know if your ISP appears to be doing the same kinds of shady things that Comcast was slapped for today. These are going to be very big issues for the near-term future of the web.
Photo: Im in ur Internets by Jason Walton